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The collected opinions of an august and aristocratic personage who, despite her body having succumbed to the ravages of time, yet retains the keen intellect, mordant wit and utter want of tact for which she was so universally lauded in her younger days. Being of a generation unequal to the mysterious demands of the computing device, Lady Bracknell relies on the good offices of her Editor for assistance with the technological aspects of her journal.

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Location: Bracknell Towers

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Way, way back, many centuries ago...

... oh, ok, perhaps not quite that long ago, but long enough ago to make me realise that I really am quite old these days, I used to make jewellery.

I wasn't ever really all that good at it, and the last of the things I made went to the charity shop in my most recent major clear-out, but I did used to do it. And I still have a tackle-box full of bits and pieces. The pliers and the findings are all perfectly usable but, dear God, the beads...!!

Ghastly, my dears: simply ghastly.

See, in those days, we didn't have the Interwebnet. There were three sources of beads:-
  • bead shops
  • jumble sales, charity shops, fleamarkets, etc, for old pieces to take to bits and re-string
  • mail order

There wasn't exactly a bead shop on every corner. I did occasionally visit the one in Covent Garden - this was back in the dim and distant past when I lived in Milton Keynes - but I was never very impressed. It stocked vast quantities of beads, admittedly. Just none that I really liked.

Janet Coles Beads produced a couple of glossy catalogues a year, and it was from them that I bought most of my supplies. I think they must have sold the catalogues in the periodicals section of WH Smith: I can't imagine how else I would have found out about them.

I'll come back to Janet Coles in a minute.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, since my discovery of Etsy earlier this year, I've looked at a lot of hand-made jewellery. (I may also have bought just one or two pieces. Nothing excessive, obviously. Merely a handful.) And I've quite often thought, "Well, I could make that. If I had the right ingredients. And if my back would hold out long enough". I can't do anything involving enamel, or kilns, or hitting metal with hammers, but I can string and wire beads together. Not necessarily with the degree of finesse required to produce anything I wouldn't be ashamed to put up for sale, but certainly well enough for the results not to drop to bits* in a high wind.

Over the last few months, therefore, the conviction has been growing in me that I really ought to at least try to start doing it again. And that a very good time to start would be over the Christmas break, given that, no matter how amateur the results, it would probably be better than slashing my wrists. I mean, I get the impression from Pop that, when he drives home from his sister's after spending Christmas with her, he'd prefer it if I were still alive to answer the phone. So, a-beading I will go.

To which end, I have been buying all manner of semi-precious beads from both Etsy and eBay. In order to do things properly, I've even invested in a proper pair of wire-cutters to replace the pair of nail-clippers I ruined snipping head pins all those years ago.

Which is how I came to find myself yesterday in email conversation with a rather charming American lady from whom I had just ordered a string of glorious Peruvian blue opal beads. While replying to her, I became increasingly convinced that, when I was last buying beads, semi-precious ones were ruinously expensive. I know I didn't earn as much in those days, but my gut feeling was that it was more than just that.

So I had a bit of a rummage in the bottom of one of my book cases. And I managed to dig out a Janet Coles catalogue from 1992. (Told you this was all a long time ago...)

And then I had to go for a bit of a lie down to get over the shock.

In 1992, a 30" string of amber chip beads cost ... wait for it ... £144!!!! One hundred and forty four pounds sterling. Plus postage and packing.

A very cursory search on Etsy this morning shows a 16" string of very similar beads for $12. (I've stuck them on the top of my Etsy favourites for the moment, so that you can click through to them from the Mini Etsy gallery in the sidebar and see the price for yourself.) Which means a 30" string would be about £12. Or, if you prefer, £132 less than was being charged for the same string fifteen years ago.

Of course, it's even worse than that. Back in 1992, £144 was worth considerably more than it is now. In fact, according to my brother-who-is-an-accountant, 50% more. So £144 in 1992 is the equivalent to £216 in today's money.

Which is an absolutely staggering amount of money for a string of drilled, polished chips of amber. A rough string which you would need to have replaced with proper beading thread and a clasp. Not even a finished necklace. And chip beads are - in my not very humble opinion - horrid. I'd rather not wear semi-precious stones at all if I couldn't afford anything nicer than chips. They just scream, "I can't afford symmetrical stones, but I'll be damned if I'll wear plastic or glass beads!!"

So, it's all very mysterious. I know the advent of the Interwebnet as a purchasing tool has eroded the price differences between various parts of the world to a considerable degree, but I don't believe it can have done so to the value of £204 for one measly string of amber chips.

Has the bottom fallen out of the semi-precious gem market in the last fifteen years?

Or was Janet Coles not actually the nice, be-cardiganned, middle-class lady she always carefully portrayed herself to be in her glossy catalogues?

The Editor

* Even more years ago, a then boyfriend bought me a necklace made of little round blue lace agate beads. From a proper jewellery shop. (In Barnstaple, as it happens.) I know the necklace was professionally-strung, because I was with him when he bought it. Said necklace suddenly fell to bits while I was teaching an RE lesson in front of a class of second years, and all the beads fell into my bra. Which was one of the more challenging moments of my short-lived teaching career.


Blogger Katie said...

That bead place in Covent Garden market was actual a stall in the market, if I recall. Lots of different pots of beads on a trestle table.

I know it was a trestle table because I wobbled into it once. And knocked it over.

It is the worst thing I have ever done. I feel guilty to this day.

It was about 15 years ago and I sincerely hope Mr Bead Man's business has recovered.

It may not have done.

12:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most semi-precious stone beads come from China now. The stones do not always, but many do and the cutting is done there, too. That's why they're so cheap now.

Etsy has lots and lots of lovely beadsellers. :) I have to put a moratorium on buying more. I keep spending everything I earn buying more, and more, and MORE.

Not the best business model, but so easy!

1:33 am  
Blogger The Goldfish said...

As Sara says, it's China and India. Better tech, plus labour and transport which is relatively much cheaper for us just now. Also, for more expensive stones, it is easier to make them go further by crushing up the stone and mixing with resin. They should always advertise as such but they don't always and in any case, you can't always tell.

There are some stones which remain expensive because they can only be found in a few places and are tricking to make beads out of - especially larger beads, if the seam has a lot of impurities in it. I believe this is the case with Lapis Lazuli - you can get diddy beads, but you never see great lumps of the stuff.

Best UK place I know for semi-precious stones is Ideas Unlimited. For the best range of findings and some lovely glass beads The Bead Shop and for gratuitous bead-porn (I've never actually bought anything from them), Bijoux Beads.

7:48 am  
Blogger japonicapopjoy said...

I found your blog as i was searching for Janet Coles Beads! I found my old bead catalogues( bought in WH Smiths 1989 - 1997) and as I have recently come back to beading thought I would see if she was still around. More than I could afford of my tiny income as a student nurse was spent on her beads so I'm devastated that she was ripping me off all along and her image as an innocent becardiganned bead lover has been shattered.

4:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and BTW, I do hope you will show us pictures of whatever you make. I'm sure it will be beautiful.

4:35 pm  
Blogger Lady said...

One of these days I'm going to quietly steal across the ocean and lift your jewelry box.

On an unrelated note, I was cleaning out my old room at my parents' house, a task not unlike cleaning the Aegan stables with a broken spork, when I found true horror lurking at the bottom of a box of otherwise innocent yarn.

That's right. Four more single servings of marmite. Worse, my nice British friend has already gone back home - and it turns out he's got a jar, a whole jar, of the stuff lurking in his desk. So I am left with nothing to do but try to eat it again.


6:10 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Oh dear. I am very late in replying to these comments. Which is extremely rude of me.

Firstly, grateful thanks to the Goldfish and Sara for the answer: I knew I had the sort of readers who would know this stuff :-)

Katie: that anecdote made me go cold with horror. Did all the beads fall off the table in slow motion? Did your life flash in front of your eyes?

Actually, though, I wasn't talking about a market stall. There was also a bricks and mortar sort of shop. Called, if memory serves, "The Bead Shop". Imaginative. Near that fab vegetarian restaurant which may not still be there. And the name of which I can't remember. Even though I have two cookery books written by its owners.

6:33 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...


Your comment made me laugh out loud. Which was slightly unfortunate, given that I was in the office when I read it.

I've been writing Christmas cards today. So I dug out the address book I've had for 20 years because I've never quite managed to transfer all the addresses in it to my new one.

Most of the people in it have either moved house, died, or disappeared from my life a long time ago.

But whose name is there under "C"...?

I'm astonished. Address and phone number of the company. In case, presumably, all my copies of the bead catalogues were destroyed in a freak - but very localised - spontaneous combustion incident.

6:39 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...


You could always just throw it in the bin.

I won't tell the Dude if you won't...

6:40 pm  
Blogger Katie said...

My life flashed before my eyes. You know that cliche, "I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me?"

Well, I actually did want that. Literally. I couldn't see a good ending and I just wanted to not be there.

It really wasn't my fault, either. I was pushed.

And it's not like I can get down on my knees and help with picking them up.

So I just stood there saying sorry. A lot. A really really lot.

And then I ran away.

I was 14, on my own, and certain I was going to be arrested.

12:44 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

You were 14????

It's a wonder you weren't permanently traumatised and that you can bear to wear jewellery at all.

12:50 pm  
Blogger Katie said...

Maybe I was sixteen. I am trying to remember the dates. There was a weird French exchange with me. She was exceptionally dull and goody-goody - didn't want me to take a bottle of wine for dinner with a friend because it was illegal - and she was with me. Maybe I was seventeen. I was in sixth form, anyway. So not in fact 14 at all.

But young. And impressionable.

I really don't like going to that bit of the market anymore, in case he is there. And then when I do go and he is not there, I feel guilty in case it was me that caused his closure.

If we ever do see each other, I am SURE he will remember me.

A few years later, in the same market, I was followed round by a random man who wanted my number, until I was rescued by another stallholder.

Never a dull moment in Covent Garden market.

2:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have suitcases of beads but not many semi-precious ones! I keep meaning to try them again some time. I still have a small bead loom, which was how I got into the entire thing in the first place.

I'm moving my blog to WordPress, by the way - the feeds at my old blog died some time ago.

7:22 pm  
Blogger japonicapopjoy said...

Lady bracknell I read your comment about finding you had listed Janet Coles Beads in your old address book and laughed thinking I'm sure I didn't do that... but today hunting out my old addresss book for addresses for christmas cards & whose details do I find under B for beads?!!! yes you've guessed it the innocent becardiganned lady herself!

4:58 pm  
Anonymous Kirsten said...

I've also stumbled upon your blog whilst hunting for Janet Coles bead catalogues :-D I was really hoping that she'd have got with the times and have her own website. But no. A neighbour introduced me to making jewellery in the very early 90's and i loved getting the Janet Coles catalogue.

I used to sell earrings in the village hall. I think i did OK, but didn't exactly sell out.

Although i have no old address books, it wouldn't surprise me if I had her as an entry in it :-)

The story about the trestle table is horrifying!

11:05 am  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Isn't it, though?

Makes you go cold all over...

4:36 pm  

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