Way, way back, many centuries ago...
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?
* 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.