Bamboozled by Beads

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Jim walked in the door just as I commenced dumping baby food down the sink. I told him not to ask, and continued with my task. I had just tried to clear my guilty conscience of spending too much at the bead store (yet again) by finding the cheapest housing I could for my new beads. Baby food is only $.89 at Met Market, and they are actually really good little jars. The only problem is: they’re full of mushed peas and squashed carrots and liquefied pears. Not exactly the sort of thing you’d want to add to your morning smoothie, so I did something that would probably have my maternal grandmother rolling over in her… urn, and dumped the food down the sink so I could use the jars.

Anyone who’s been to a bead store knows the agony I am talking about. At the entrance, you pick up a little velvet-lined ice cube tray, each indent carefully marked: 10¢, 20¢, 30¢, up to $1.25 or so. Those seem like harmless enough prices, so you go along, sifting through glittering piles of Swarovski crystals, thinking “Wow! These are only 10¢ each! I can get like a hundred of these!” and congratulating yourself for limiting the number of charms and pendants you chose (80¢-$1.25+). The Czech glass is on sale for a steal, and whatever those ethnic, earthy stones are, they’re going for a decent price. You take your ice cube tray of treasures up to the cashier, who tells you your total is a triple digit number. Ouch.

But oh! What wondrous creations those beads can become. Earrings that look like dancing faeries, festive trifles, flowery bracelets. Sometimes I have specific projects I want to emulate, usually that I’ve found on Pinterest or Etsy, but most of the time I “follow the bead.” I’ll find the perfect pendant for a statement necklace, or an enchanting pair of charms for earrings, and go from there. I have mentioned this before, but I am a big fan of puzzles that have no pictures on the box (not literally, that actually sounds quite stressful). One of my favorite pairs of earrings incorporated iridescent beetle wings (a gift from my lovely cousin) and my favorite necklace, a piece of amber with an ant in it, which I got from my aunt (an ant from my aunt).

To follow the bead, of course, sort of requires that you have a stock of some basic jewelry-making supplies. It wouldn’t be good if you got home only to realize you couldn’t complete your project without going back to the bead store for what you need (and spending another $200 in the process). For those of you who are interested, I’ve compiled some information about jewelry basics here. For those of you not interested, here are some pretty pictures!

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Jewelry Supply Basics:

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A. Jewelry wire – used for all manner of piecing things together. When selecting jewelry wire, pay special attention to the gauge (thickness) of the wire. The smaller the gauge, the thicker the wire. Somewhere between 28 and 32 is the thinnest wire, and it’s almost threadlike, generally used for weaving and such. My favorite for earrings is 22 or 20 – strong enough to keep earrings together with a slight tug test, but thin enough that the wire is fairly easily manipulated with my wimpy hands and the wire itself doesn’t distract from the beads. Other jewelry-makers like to incorporate the wire into their designs, usually with wire-wrapping. This would use thicker gauges, up to 10.

B. Beads. I generally suggest coming up with a color scheme. I tend to like greens and purples and blues and browns, rather than reds or yellows or oranges, so if I buy strands of beads (like the round purple stones here) I try to stick to colors I know I will use eventually, even if I don’t have a specific project in mind for them. These are nice to have on hand to add some color to a silver or bronze charm or pendant. Beads come in all types of shapes and sizes, too. It all depends on your preference, but pay attention to hole size. You want to make sure the wire you use will fit through the beads, and generally, the smaller the bead, the smaller the hole. If you mostly make earrings, maybe start small (so they don’t get too heavy). If you find yourself mostly using diamond-shapes, stock up on those, etc.

C. Bead caps. These are lovely little “findings,” which is what jewelers call the little metal bits used to adorn the beads on their creations. They can be plain, shaped like flowers or leaves, filigreed, etc. They are especially nice for round beads. Size matters here, as well. I like to keep a range of sizes handy. If your bead cap is too big, it can look a bit like an awkward umbrella hanging over your bead. If it’s too small, it won’t fit snugly, and may slip around.

D. Earring hooks. These also come in different shapes and sizes and styles. Some are very simple, just curved and hooked at the end. Some have a coil and ball, some have closing backs. It’s your preference.

E. Spacers. These findings go in between beads, to add length and some metal shine to a piece. They are usually much smaller than caps, and frequently are shaped like flowers. The hole size is important to pay attention to, with spacers. Too big, and the spacer will slip off to the side and not fit evenly between the beads. Too small, and you may not be able to get the wire through.

F. Head pins. These are one of my most-used findings. Essential to the construction of earring, they secure the bottom-most bead without showing. With all of your “findings,” you’ll want to pay attention to color, as well. Things can look a bit off if your metallics don’t match. I don’t want to scare you, but color-matching can be difficult. There are several basic colors: silver, gold, copper, bronze, brass, nickel, etc. And in addition to these colors, there are qualifications: antique, bright, vintage, gunmetal, rose, sterling, burnished, polished, etc. Each one is slightly different than the others. You can get away with pairing things like antique copper and bronze, or silver and nickel. It’s also up to your personal preference. I don’t really like gold much, so I stick to brighter, sterling silvers and antique or vintage coppers and bronzes and brass.

G. Eye pins. Definitely my most-used finding. These are what I use to connect beads to each other. You can make your own eye pins if you like, but it’s just so handy and not too spendy to buy them pre-made. Again, pay attention to gauge and length and color. I tend to like at least an inch and a half, usually 2 inch eye pins and head pins. It really depends on the size of beads you generally use, and how much maneuvering room you want when snipping off the end and closing the pin with a loop.

H. Charms. I love charms. They are the centerpiece of the earring, usually. They provide personality, and there are so many funny ones: I got some that are little wedges of cheese, and some that are wine glasses. There are all manner of animals and faeries and flowers and moons and stars and suns, pretty much anything that people can possibly be interested in. Mostly the thing to pay attention to when choosing charms is color matching, and also, your freaking budget. Charms is where they getcha!

I. Wire cutters. Pretty standard tool, used for (you guessed it) cutting wire. Make sure you get some that are strong enough for the gauge of wire you are using. Getting notches in your tools from thick wire is not fun.

J. Round nose pliers. These are used for creating loops (such as eye pins) or coils, or wire-wrapping. It’s helpful to mark them with Sharpie, so that you create consistent sizes in your loops, as the pliers are tapered.

K. Short needle-nose pliers. I can’t find anything more specific to describe these. I typically think of needle-nose pliers as long and thin, and you don’t want those for jewelry-making. Nor do you want thick flat-nose pliers. You want as much leverage as you can get with these, and you want them to be thin at the tip, for precision. I have a set of regular sized jewelry-making tools, and a miniature set for travel.

L. I forgot jump rings! Jump rings are also very handy to have. You can make them yourself with your wire, by wrapping the wire around the round nose pliers to make a circle. Or you can buy them in whatever size you like – I like to have a range of jump rings between 3mm and 5mm in silver and antique bronze.

And there you have it! Probably more than you wanted to know about jewelry-making.

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