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Organic Materials

Organic bead materials are derived from living things: plants and animals This is the largest and most complex class of bead materials.

The oldest beads that have survived are made from teeth (including ivory), bone, shell, fossils, coal (itself a fossil, either as jet or another hard type) and ostrich eggshell. Stones were only used for beads in the "Old Stone Age" when they were very soft. It is highly likely, though archaeology has a hard time proving it, that plants were used for beads and human decoration even before some of these materials.

When I work with organic beads I divide them into three groups: 1. Traditional materials derived from animals, 2. Traditional materials derived from plants and 3. Precious organic materials.


I have a special love for plants. Having grown up on a farm, being a long-time vegetarian and always traveling, they fascinate me. When I first went to India the new flora enthralled me, eventually resulting in publication in the botanical literature. They continue to fascinate me and I have drawn up a list of Super Bead Plants.

Rose Petal beads are very popular and I am glad to have a good recipe by Diane Merrill here. The most common plant bead is popularly called Job's Tears. Many other plants are used for beads. Some are holy or sacred and some are deadly. Some your grandmother wore and some are used for weighing things. Some travel far and some are collected by mice.

Flowers are used for beads, too. Bucklee Bell wrote this for the on-line Southeast Asia Bead Circle Newsletter. Leaves are also used for human adornment. The Kukui nut of Hawai'i is widely used for beads; there is even a song written about Kukui leis.


The most important single bead material with an animal origin is shell, particularly seashells. The Beads and Seashells Gallery will acquaint you with the basic terms used to describe seashells, some of the more common shells used for beads and some ways shells are treated to made into beads.

Some shell beads have specific roles to play in society. This is true of wampum in the American Northeast and of a shell disc bead in the Northwest, as Scott Thompson reports.


Precious organic materials may come from either plants or animals. Those from plants include amber, copal, jet and some others. From animals we get pearls, ivory, coral and a few others. Pearls, in particular, are closely associated with beads in many languages.

Wherever our organic materials originate, we should respect them. They are representative of life. We have no right to hunt them to extinction. A case of this happened with a woman using feathers from endangered birds for a dreamcatcher she gave to Hillary Clinton.


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