Guide to Beads: Materials, Shapes, Sizes, and More
There are countless variations and uses to beads. Whether you’re using them for jewelry making, embroidering, or something entirely different, it can be daunting to try and sort through all the details that differentiate each type of bead, which is why I’ve attempted to sort through a few common categorizations and features in this guide to help you feel a bit less lost.
This guide will focus mainly on beads used in the work seen here in the Soul Society, but will not be strictly limited to those beads and will briefly touch on additional types. Do not see this guide as a comprehensive guide, rather, it’s designed as merely a start to understanding the vast amount of options out there. This guide is separated into sections of polish and cuts, followed by shapes, sizes, and lastly, materials.
Polish and Cut
There are a few different surface textures that are common in beads. Smooth beads are arguably the most common type of bead, with a smooth surface lacking any distinctly cut bumps or edges. Faceted beads are quite the opposite, where the sides of the bead are cut to create multiple flat faces, giving the beads more of a sparkle and “dressed up” appearance. Depending on the bead, you may encounter micro faceting, in which the facets are smaller and more intricate than average faceting. Faceting can be done by hand or by laser cutting, and quality will vary based on the skill of the gem cutter.
There are technically countless bead shapes out there, especially when you consider lampwork and Czech bead styles, but for the sake of this guide I’ll go over what I think are the most common shapes to be found. Available shapes may vary between materials as well.
The most common shape across many types of beads is round/spherical. Round shapes may be flattened to create more of an oval shape, which is called a rondelle. Rondelles themselves may have more of a rounded oval appearance, or they may appear more flattened and disc-like.
Rondelles that have a flat edge all the way around are referred to as Heishe beads. It is very common to see both smooth and faceted options for round and rondelle beads. Seed beads have a particularly rondelle-like shape, but are distinct from rondelles and not usually referred to as such due to their small seed-like size being a distinguishing factor. Bicone beads could be said to be in the same family as rondelles, but with a more geometric appearance of two cones being stuck together at their bases. Bicones are usually faceted, and may be flattened and referred to as bicone rondelles.
Round and rondelle beads may also take on a more 2-dimensional shape, as in disc or coin shape beads, or flattened oval shapes. Again, these beads may be available in both smooth and faceted options. Although these are very common shapes, beads can technically come in every shape under the sun, such as rectangular, tube shapes, teardrop or pear, helix, or even fun shapes like stars, hearts, and so on.
In addition to what’s listed above, with gemstone beads particularly you will often find irregular shape beads such as chip and nugget, in which natural stones are tumbled to have a smooth surface without seriously altering the natural shape of the bead.
Beads are typically measured in millimeters (mm). Different size beads will give your jewelry a different appearance, with smaller mm beads in the 2-4mm range being a more delicate style that’s ideal for accents, and larger beads in the 10-14mm range often lending themselves to more of a statement style. 5-8mm beads are a nice in between option. Familiarize yourself with how these different shapes appear in real life, and experiment with using different combinations of sizes to create styles of jewelry that appeal the most to your aesthetic vision.
Each bead material is going to come with it’s own unique set of commonly found shapes and textures, some being unique to the given material.
Gemstone beads are incredibly common, and have been used in jewelry making even before the days of modern civilization. Gemstones naturally have varying degrees of hardness, as well as varying sensitivity to water and sweat, both of which should be taken into consideration when making gemstone jewelry.
Glass beads are a popular alternative to gemstone beads, the category itself having multiple subcategories. You have faceted “crystal” beads such as those made by Swarovski and similar companies, which have added a mixture of silica and alkali and are often used to simulate high end gemstones, you have lampwork glass beads which often take on very unique shapes and colors, sometimes mimicking real life objects such as fruits and vegetables, there are Czech glass beads which are made from pressed, fire polished glass, often exhibiting vibrant colors and again, unique shapes, there is Venetian glass with varying techniques, and countless additional variations to the glass bead category.
Pearls are a timeless and very popular bead material, with natural pearls coming in a wide array of shapes and colors - freshwater pearls, nugget pearls, Baroque pearls, chickens feet pearls, rice pearls, and so on and so forth. For those who are looking to minimize their environmental impact and avoid usage of animal based materials, glass or acrylic pearls are a popular alternative. The shape range is much more limited with faux pearls, where the most common options will be round and occasionally teardrop, with only a few options for additional shapes such as seed pearls and Baroque pearls.
Additional animal based bead materials include bone and horn beads, which are carved from, you guessed it, bones of animals. Animal bone beads are a very popular alternative jewelry material and have been used to make jewelry for as far back as jewelry making has been done. Animal bone beads should be sourced responsibly and ethically, just as any animal based material should be.
Wood beads are more or less popular depending on your cultural sphere, and offer a very unique appearance to your jewelry with varying shapes, sizes, cuts, and colors available.
More types of bead materials include acrylic/plastic, enamel, polymer, porcelain, and metal, to name a few. In reality, the options for bead materials, shapes, and styles, are far too vast to encompass in a brief guide. As a beginner, you should take your time exploring bead styles either by research or simply by going to a craft store and familiarizing yourself with what various materials, sizes, and shapes look and feel like until you begin to get a sense for what you like and what you dislike.