History of Czech Glass Beads

The History of Czech Glass Bead Making is closely allied to the impact that the First and Second World Wars, and the subsequent Cold War, had on the area as a whole. The region where glass making production is centred was formerly known as North Bohemia. Hence the descriptive term sometimes used, namely Bohemian Glass beads.

North Bohemia had been a European glass manufacturing centre since the 13th century largely because it was rich in the natural resources needed for glass making. Supplies of quartz, which was mined, and potash from the regions forests, and a by product of the wood burned to heat the glass, made it the ideal location. The cities of Jablonec, Stanovsko and Bedrichov (or modern Reichenberg) all produced glass beads, mainly for use in rosaries, but from the second half of the 16th century, when costume jewellery become fashionable, they started producing beads to be used more decoratively. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century saw the development of machines that allowed mass production of moulded pressed glass beads, so thousands of identical beads could be produced cheaply. The mechanically shaped beads were a real innovation in terms of glass making history, as little had changed technically for many centuries. These pressed beads were not made around a traditional glass mandrel, but instead a rod forming the hole was pushed into the mould, and this meant that the hole could theoretically be placed in any position and multiple holes could be introduced. The moulds allowed complex shapes to be made and by making use of patterned canes, or the glass rods fed into the machine, the resulting beads could be elaborately coloured, giving them a slightly random appearance, even if the shape was exactly the same. In time these differing colourings, shapes and finishes resulted in Czech Glass Fire Polished beads, Czech Glass Aurora Borealis beads, Czech Glass Flower beads, and Czech Glass Swirl beads, Czech Glass Picasso beads, and Czech Glass Satin beads, with Preciosa alone now boasting 425,000 different beads and jewellery components in its range.

This sense of mass production saw the expansion of the industry and Czech Glass beads were exported around the world. However, the actual making of the Czech pressed glass beads, on the whole, remained a cottage industry, in that machines and moulds were bought and used by individuals and families who would work from home to supply the companies that would then trade the beads. As can be seen below family homes that produced glass beads could be identified quite easily by their tall chimneys and roof vents.

History Czech Glass Bead Production Jablonec

The image above show a typical hill side bead making operation housed in a small house with a tall chimney and roof vent. (Source: Jablonex Heritage Archive)

History Czech Glass Beads Moulded Bead Production Jablonec

The image above shows a hand coloured interior view of a glass bead pressing workshop. (Source: Jablonex Heritage Archive)

Czech Glass beads manufacturers were also innovative in their salesmanship and in providing the consumer with what they wanted. Sample men travelled worldwide to speak with Czech Glass bead wholesale suppliers and determine what would sell best in each market. They then returned to Czechoslovakia and advised on specific designs for sale to these markets. This proactive approach was highly successful, increasing the sales and demand for Czech Glass beads worldwide, including from places as far and wide as Africa, Japan and Tibet.

At the end of the First World War in 1918, North Bohemia became part of Czechoslovakia. By 1928 Czechoslovakia was the largest bead exporter in the world. However, trade was then affected by the Great Depression that hit the global economy in the 1930s. This was followed by the Second World War. Immediately after the war Sudeten Germans who had lived and worked for most of their lives alongside Czechs in the Northern Bohemia region, were forcibly relocated to within the new German borders, primarily because of their allegiance to the Nazi regime during the war years. Those who were glass bead makers took their skills with them. Many resettled in the town of Neu Gablonz which was so named in honour of the bead makers. In turn Jablonec was renamed Jablonec nad Nisou.

From 1948 Czechoslovakia had a Communist government who did not see costume jewellery production or glass bead making as approved industries. However, in 1958, five years after the death of Stalin, they restarted the industry in an effort to trade out of Czechoslovakia in return for hard currency to support the faltering economy. In doing so the Communists nationalized the industry, which meant production became factory based. This single state run monopoly, Jablonex, controlled all exports out of Czechoslovakia involving both glass and glass beads, where previously at its height there had been over 2,000 agents exporting glass.

History Czech Glass Beads Manufacture Communism History Czech Glass Beads Manufacture Communism History Czech Glass Beads Manufacture Communism

The montage image above shows an exterior and two interior shots of part of the Jablonex Factory complex in Jablonec nad Nisou (Source: Architect Drofa)

Although not widely publicized for obvious reasons, penal labour was used at the core of bead making production and jewellery assembly in Communist Czechoslovakia. Factory facilities were setup in prisons around the Jablonec area, such as Valdice prison which was formerly a monastery, and at the time had capacity to hold 2,600 inmates, including political prisoners.

History Czech Glass Beads Penal Production Jablonex

An aerial view of the Valdice prison complex with the former monastery building at its centre (Source: Jiří Berger, MF DNES)

Each prison facility would have production targets, with individual prisoners assigned to bead production expected to produce 30 to 40 kg of beads a day. Prisoners also assembled costume jewellery, necklaces, artificial flowers, chandeliers and rosaries intended for worldwide distribution under the banner of Jablonex. Just when this harsh and often intensive practice ended, post Communist era, is not easy to establish.

The Velvet Revolution of 1989 saw the end of Communist control. Czechoslovakia split into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with the region that once was North Bohemia, lying within the Czech Republic.

The glass making industry in general has now been revived in the Czech Republic, and once again supplies high quality beads to the global market. Although it is the large operators like Preciosa that dominate production, both as bead and component producers, as well as primary suppliers of the glass rods used by the smaller bead making operations. Post Communism, Jablonex became a major conglomeration, but closed its doors in 1995 and sold its furnaces and large bead making equipment off to Asian glass factories. With the loss of Jablonex the area also lost its central distribution mechanism and global export know how.

There has been a return to small scale production with individuals supplying local factories, using machine methods very similar to those employed in the 19th century, but with improved technology. However, in the last five to ten years this historic cottage style of bead making has been hard hit by the dominance of the large scale producers, alongside direct competition from India and China. This overseas competition has become more of an issue as the quality of pressed and faceted beads, from China in particularly, has improved considerably. Whilst India has focussed on supplying lampwork beads, the quality of Japanese seed beads, by Toho and Miyuki, has reached such a level as to make them the seed bead of choice for the majority of seed bead workers. This is due to their range, finish but above all else the consistency of supply. Subsequently, unemployment amongst artisan bead makers and factory glass workers in the Czech Republic is running very high, with the impact of competition and recession also felt by the large scale Czech producers, who struggle to react quickly enough to trends in fashion and design.