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Seed Bead Names

There has been a lot of speculation on where the term "Seed Bead" arose. The most common story is that when European glass beads replaced actual seeds used in embroidery, the old name (seed) was applied to the new glass beads. Aside from the lack of any evidence, this is clearly a case of false etymology.

We need go no further than to note the absence of name of the people who were supposed to have done this. Sheer logic tells us that it is nonsense, as it assumes these mysterious people spokeEnglish.

Small pearls once popular as decoration on clothing were called "seed" pearls;" the first use of which is recorded in 1553. The Oxford English Dictionary lists several more early uses of the term including that by John Smith in Virginia in 1710.

The same work recognizes "seed coral," citing a reference in 1879, "The Chinese... used to prepare strings of small rows of seed-coral beads for embroidery". It notes that the term is "simulative," after the well-established "seed pearl."

In an oversight, the OED does not recognize "seed bead." Decades earlier than
 "seed coral" "seed bead" was in use. Ephraim Hart of New York took out two ads for his
shop in 1803 offering seed beads for sale. In the same year, Israel Whelen, a Philadelphia merchant, charged the US government for seed beads to be taken on the
Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Across the Atlantic, the Englishman Joseph Corry wrote that seed beads were to be sent to West Africa for trade after his trip there in 1805-6. Thus, by the first decade of the 19th century "seed bead" was an established term in America (two cities) and Britain, and no doubt elsewhere as well.

(The French equivalent grains was in use by 1647 and Körner in German by 1799; both are plurals. The French still use that term, but it did not catch on in German.)

As with many objects, seed beads (and other sorts of beads) are given various names. However, the major manufacturers of seed beads (the Czech, Japanese, French and North Indians; also the Venetians, who no longer make seed beads) and their large importers use pretty much the same name for particular types of beads. The names sometimes reflect the glass, the shape or the finishing process, but they are mostly standardized.

The Special Seed Bead Issue [

Margaretologist 10(2) and many beading books can be bought here.

These galleries present examples of the various names used for beads, tell you something about the history of the name and a little about the background of the beads.

Gallery 1, Names 1: Seed bead, Rocaille, Bugle, Charlotte.
Gallery 2, Names 2: Macca, 2-cuts, 3-cuts, Ceylon Pearls, Delica
Gallery 3, Decorative Processes 1: Lining, Lustering, A.B./Rainbow, Irising.
Gallery 4: Decorative Processes 2: Alabaster/opal glass, Dyeing, Satin glass, Square holes


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