The Unpredictable Beauty of Lampwork Beads

Lampwork beadsLampwork beads are a special kind of alchemy produced when fire meets the glass. They're tiny masterpieces of color and technique, each made by hand through a painstaking process of many delicate steps. Look closely at the jewelry made from lampwork beads: The beads may match, but they're never quite identical. Each one is a miniature sculpture of glassworking art.

This is what makes lampwork bead jewelry so unique. You'll never meet anyone wearing exactly the same thing, which makes this the perfect gift for someone who stands out from the crowd. Larger lampwork beads are often used as stunning centerpieces of necklaces or bracelets since even a single bead creates a statement.

Working with high heat and molten glass is tricky and exacting, but it's a fascinating process to watch. Each bead is constructed on a specially-prepared steel rod called a mandrel. The bead is built as molten glass wraps around the mandrel, creating the bead's hole. The artist uses a high-heat torch to melt thin rods of colored or transparent glass, which are expertly applied to the surface of the bead to form patterns. Some lampwork artists fuse thin layers of gold or silver to the bead. And some of the most fabulous beads result from "accidents."

But all this exacting work can be ruined if the glass cracks as it cools, so the artists use a slow process called "annealing" to make sure that each layer of each bead cools at an even rate.

All this is why lampwork glass beads are so highly prized, both for their beauty and their individuality.

Contact us to find out more about handmade lampwork bead jewelry

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The History of Glassmaking in America: Lampwork Beads

The lampwork technique consists of transforming molten glass into various artworks, including beads that are very popular in handmade jewelry. Lampwork was first done by the use of alcohol lamps in which the flame would be increased in temperature using bellows. This craft has been widely practiced since the 14th century in Murano, Italy, but it wasn't brought to the United States until much more recently.

history of glassmakingLampworking was brought to the United States a few decades ago when artists who visited Italy became interested in the Murano glass beads they discovered. These artists each returned to America and started experimenting on their own with glass to create beads. The torches they used were modified, as there was pretty much no lampwork tools available to them, and they chose American stain glass from development during the turn of the century to use. They developed their own lampwork bead making techniques as they experimented.

The techniques grew as these artists shared their knowledge among each other, then spread this information to anyone who showed interest. Now, lampworking techniques have spread greatly throughout the United States with lampwork being taught in classes at art studios and even colleges throughout the nation.

Lampwork torching is quite difficult to master, however, as you first must have an understanding of glass chemistry. The colors of glass are created by mixing different chemicals, and it takes years of experience to fully understand just how glass interacts chemically when held to a flame. The knowledge needed to master lampwork bead making is part of what makes this craft so intriguing.

Here are some of SWCreations first lampwork beads:

history of lampwork glassmaking

Here is a gorgeous rose filled heart lampwork bead by artist Patsy Evins:

patsy evins - lampwork beads

Here is a “House of Vettii” lampwork bead by artist Lydia Muell (Lampwork Treasures):

“House of Vettii” Lydia Muell

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Handcrafted Lampwork Beads as Tiny Works of Art

lampwork works of artCreating beaded jewelry is so much fun to do. It allows for an opportunity to use all sorts of findings and a little creativity to design original pieces of art. But what’s something else that’s interesting is that many of the beads designers use in their jewelry are also tiny pieces of art themselves. In many cases, another individual using their own intricate creative processes created the beads designers use. This is definitely the case when it comes to jewelry designed with lampwork beads.

Lampwork bead making really began to flourish in Murano, Italy in the 1300’s. During this time, the beads were made in the flame of an oil lamp, while the designer blew air into the flame through a pipe.

Today’s artists take a completely different approach. They use torches that burn either propane or natural gas for the fuel, and either air or pure oxygen as the oxidizer to melt and shape the glass. It’s an intricate process that ends with beautiful results. The following is a simplified version of how to make lampwork beads.

What the designer needs to get started:

(1) Glass rods of whatever color(s) you desire your bead to be.

(2) A mandrel or stainless steel rod, pre-dipped in a chemical to keep the bead from sticking to the rod.

(3) Whatever specific tools are necessary to create the style and design of bead you desire.

(4) A torch.

How the designer creates the bead:

After the designer has assembled everything he needs to make his bead, he begins the actual process by turning on the torch and holding the glass rod over the heat until it begins to melt. It will form a molten blob on the end. Once the blob is big enough the mandrel will need to be heated up under the torch flame. Then the designer will wrap the molten glass around the mandrel while slowly twirling it at the same time.

The flame serves a couple purposes at this point. The first is to break the remaining glass rod away from the bead. The second is to shape the bead itself. This is done by holding it over the flame while the designer twirls it around to give it a nice donut shape. He is essentially using the flame and gravity to give it the desired form.

If he wants to make a certain design on the bead, he holds the bead in the higher part of the flame in order to keep it warm. Then he can get another glass rod of a different color and heat the tip of it. After it’s heated, he takes it and carefully dabs it around the bead in whatever design he wishes, and then melts that into the bead.

After the designer is satisfied with his work, he puts the bead into the kiln overnight so it can anneal properly. Annealing is simply the process of heating and cooling which reduces its brittleness and allows the glass to strengthen.

How neat is that! To think each little bead was created by such in interesting process—by human hands. Each handcrafted bead has a personality of its own. They are unique and one of a kind, and take on an entirely new persona once they are used in the creation of a piece of jewelry. It sure gives me a new appreciation for the tiny pieces of art they are!

- written for SWCreations by Lisa Vella -

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