Are you a jewelry designer? Do you love to make bracelets, necklaces and earrings for yourself or your friends?  Are you looking for different options for precious and semi-precious stones?

Consider designing with glass beads. Glass beads can bring your designs to a new level of sophistication and style. Lampwork glass beads are like the little black dress of jewelry; they go with everything and can be easily dressed up or down.

In this blog post, I’ll share some of my tips for working with glass beads in jewelry design. So read on, and get inspired to start creating your own beautiful pieces with these unique components!

Having a plan

When I sit down to make jewelry, I find the hardest part is picking out the beads to use. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed with all the colours, shapes, and styles. Even though I make the beads, I still struggle when confronted with too many choices. I have been known to sit with my hand in my bead bin, pick out bead after bead, lay them out on my work bench with great ideas forming only to dump them all back in the bucket because I was distracted by something else that caught my eye.

Having too many options to choose from is surely the kiss of death if you don’t have some focus when you start out. Starting with a plan is the best way to get started.

First, start with form, what do you want to make? earrings? Next, move to colour, what colour inspires you? Do you have an idea forming yet? Once you have a basic plan, shopping for beads will be a lot easier.

Finding the perfect beads

First of all, remember there is no such thing as the perfect bead!

There are beads that make you feel something, beads that inspire you to make something, and those that suit what you want to design.

Keep this in mind when you’re standing in front of a bead makers booth ready to shop. Does the bead maker’s style match your style? Does their work inspire you?

The bead maker will have examples of the work and inspiring designs that can get your creativity flowing or inspire different ideas for incorporating beads into a new jewelry piece.

the bead bin

As a bead maker my booth is usually overloaded with all my jewelry designs as well as loose beads for sale. I usually have a big dish of loose beads I like to call the “bead bin”. These beads are also often referred to as “orphan beads”. There is nothing wrong with orphan beads. They are generally the left over beads from a larger set or test beads created when testing out new colours and techniques. They are a very economical way to buy beads because the maker didn’t make them into a set or specific combination.

I think the bin is pure gold when it comes to designing something on the fly. You get to paw through the bead bin and put together your own assortment of beads. The downside is that the orphan beads are just that … one-of-a-kind. Not to be repeated.

beads

A few tips for picking out your beads

Picking out glass beads for your designs can be a daunting task. There are so many beautiful colours, shapes, sizes and styles available that it can easily be overwhelming.

Look for bundles

Many bead makers bundle their beads together in complimentary colours and designs. This is to make it easier for jewelry designers and to help alleviate overwhelm. In most cases the bead artist is able to offer more beads to complete your design if the bundle you like doesn’t have enough beads in it.

Pick out your focal bead first

Another way to keep the focus is to pick a focal bead first and work around that. The focal bead will be the most decorative of the beads you pick and can be the anchor of your design if you plan to create a jewelry set. Focal beads are the beads where bead makers let their imagination go wild and spend the most time. Complimentary beads can usually be made to go with the focal bead you choose, just ask the maker.

dotted focal bead
Consider the bead weight

A lot of people shy away from using glass beads in their designs because they are afraid they would be too heavy. While glass beads do tend to be heavier than other media they really aren’t any heavier than semi precious stones if you match them size for size. My recommendation is dependent on what piece of jewelry you want to make. If you’re making earrings, test the weight of the beads. Hold them in your hand or tie them up with a piece of string or wire and hang them off your own earring. If they feel too heavy for you then they will most likely feel too heavy for the person buying the earrings.

Also note, the longer the drop from the earlobe, the heavier the beads will feel. Designing earrings with smaller beads – 12-15mm is generally best. Another option is to look for hollow beads. Hollow beads are just that, hollow! and allow the wearer to choose larger, more statement like beads for their earrings. Hollow beads come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colours.

Bead size

As noted above the bead size is related to the weight so for earrings you may want to keep the beads small but for a bracelet or necklace you can select any bead size that suits your design.

Medium sized beads, 1/2” diameter round or donut shaped are perfect for bracelets where you want to string the beads one after another and accent with other complimentary components. These sizes hang nicely and are usually moderately decorated. Simple coloured beads this size offer an amazing backdrop for wire wrapping designers.

Large beads are generally decorated with intricate designs and patterns or are a blend of colours that beg you to stare at them, looking into the depths of the design. We call these “focal beads” , “story beads”, and “necklace beads”. These beads are where bead makers really exercise their talents and design amazing “picture” or “theme” beads. Some examples are Aquarium beads, Tornado beads, and Florals. These beads range from 1” – 2” in diameter and 1/2”-3/4” thick. Because of their size these beads are generally hung from heavy chain, leather, or some kind of heavy beading cord. Use these glass beads for your statement jewelry.

Long tubular beads work very well as broach & pin beads

Bead Holes

Glass beads are made on mandrels. This is a steel rod, usually a welding rod, 1/16″diameter to 1/4″diameter. The mandrel will be coated in what’s called bead release so it will add to the size of the bead hole. Bead release is used when making the bead so the bead can be “released” from the mandrel when done.

Unlike pearls, crystals, and gemstones which are drilled, you may want to consider the hole size in your design. For example, if you’re making a pair of earrings, the bead will move around on the headpin wire until firmly set in place with bead caps or centering beads. Centering beads sit at the top of the bead hole and stabilize the bead on the bead wire or head pin. I like to use colourful crystals or decorative silver beads to hold my beads in place but in cases where that doesn’t work with my design I will use tiny seed beads or foam pieces in the bead hole to hold the bead in place on the head pin. With smaller bead holes, the additional efforts of stabilizing the bead aren’t as necessary.

3/32 mandrels leave a sizeable hole and work very well on the posts supplied with beaded pens and letter openers. When using 3/32 for earrings you can stuff the hole with seed beads or foam to reduce the amount of movement of the bead around the headpin.

Beaded Letter Opener

3/16+ mandrels are perfect for big hole beads that you might core with silver or copper. If you don’t core your big hole beads you might try leather wraps as an accent and stringing material.

Regardless of the hole size glass beads are still great for jewelry making. They are easier to work with when working with wire. The bead hole plays well with heavier wire designs, especially bracelets and necklaces.

big hole bead bracelet

Conclusion

Handmade glass beads are a great alternative to gemstones. You can buy them in bulk or order an individual bead for your jewelry project. The colours, shapes and textures available make it easy to find the perfect bead for whatever you’re looking for! Whether you need something simple with just one colour, or want something more complex that will stand out on its own as well as against other pieces of jewelry – handmade glass beads have got you covered.

Check out my website to get inspired and shop for beads for your next great project. I hope this article has inspired you to try using handmade glass beads when designing new jewelry projects!