Read all about my once-in-a-lifetime trip to Prague and its surrounding areas, exploring the glass bead factories of the Czech Republic.
Like many jewellery makers the Czech Republic has been on my bucket list of places to visit for years. Known as a bead mecca, it’s where much of the pressed beads and sparkling faceted crystals that we use and love are born.
The region has a rich history of glass production that dates back centuries. Before the World War, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) was synonymous with glass making – with some of the finest glass artists in the world practicing there. So when I was offered the chance to join American beader and YouTube star Jill Wiseman on her Czech bead tour in 2018 it wasn’t something I had to think over!
I joined around 30 other people on the tour, which was organised by Lisa Busch and Jon Kubricht of Creative Adventures. We began our trip on a Monday in Prague. We would be staying in the Old Town close to the market square, because of course no trip to Czech Republic can be complete without a visit to Prague itself, even if just for the architecture. Over the next few days we had several tours around the city, both by coach and on foot and also by boat! We got to see all the important sights such as Charles Bridge, the castle, cathedrals and the square – and our tour guide Eva filled us in on the details of what we were seeing as only a local can.
The first beady part of the trip came on Tuesday night in the form of a three-hour class with Jill. The tour included two classes with Jill complete with kits. The first project on the agenda was a pretty bracelet design: Susan Sassoon’s Charles Bridge, which uses Czech glass Carrier beads, bugles and seed beads. I had a blast getting to meet all of the other beaders and help them create the project as Jill’s classroom assistant.
Arriving in Bead Country
On Wednesday we left Prague behind and headed towards ‘Bead Country’. We would be staying in the town of Liberec for the next three nights. Our group almost completely took over a beautiful boutique hotel in the modern town centre and now it was time for the geeky part of the tour to begin.
On our first night in Liberec we were treated to a mini Trunk Show (what the Americans call a bead show). We turned the hotel’s dining area in to a bead shopping paradise; we were visited by several local factories and wholesalers who set up their wares for us to shop shop shop! There were stunning glass buttons, strings of beautiful pressed glass beads, vintage Czech crystal stones and a whole table full of stunning laser etched beads. It was hard to know where to start and the prices were amazing! I set myself a budget (after all it would not do to be out of koruna for when we visited the factories) but in no time at all I had to rush back to my room to grab some more cash! Whoops!
The next day was a busy one and where the real glass part got started! We began the day with a visit to a small factory that hand makes Christmas tree ornaments. For such a small factory the volume they produced was surprising. We watched two of the blowers at work and then one of our group even got to have a go. After the blowing we saw the liquid silver being poured in to coat the inside of the bauble. Next it was on to the paint room to see the colour and the glitter being added. (Watch the video below) No tour is of course complete without a visit to the gift shop and the prices were so reasonable that most of our group came out laden with packages! Beaders just can’t resist shiny things!
Behind the Scenes in a Glass Ornament Factory | Watch The Video
Seeing the beads being born
Next up was, for me, the highlight of the tour. We visited G&B Beads, a working glass bead factory that also offers tours. We were given a guided walk through the factory and got to see the bead production up close. We saw 2-hole carrier beads being tumbled and jet black faceted beads being cut and fire polished. It really was a magical moment.
In one room there was a giant box of faceted glass beads; it was crying out to be jumped in and our guide said I was welcome to… so I did! Life goal met.
What surprised all of us is how much of the process is still done by hand. Although the grinding (adding of facets) is done by a machine; out of the four in use in the room at the time, three of them were being manually operated. These women held the racks of beads against the grinder and knew exactly when to press it to achieve the right facet – amazing! The final stage was the firepolishing –we watched trays of 4mm faceted jet beads being moved through the kiln at temperatures of 600 degrees Celcius. And did you know that the beads we buy on strings are all hand strung? After a trip like this you will never quibble over the price of beads again.
Like all good tours it ended in the gift shop! More bead shopping ensued; the shop which was dripping with strings and strings of colourful beads as well as lots of inspiring finished jewellery for sale.
Behind the Scenes at G&B Beads | Watch the Video
Later that day we visited a a Preciosa crystal art installation, a chandelier show room and a beautiful shop that sold glassware, jewellery and of course beads. What I loved most about this shop was the inspiring cat-walk style clothing and accessory designs they had on mannequins, all decorated with beads and crystals.
That evening we returned to G&B Beads after hours for our second class which took place in their stunning workshop room. The group got to make a start on Jill’s geometric Bohemian Spires pendant.
On Friday we visited the more industrial Detesk glass – a factory that makes glassware such as bottles, lights and lab ware. They used huge machines and massive tubes of borosilicate glass to achieve this – less twinkly and colourful, but still fascinating.
After this there was a chance to stroll around the small town of Jablonec (pronounced Yablonetz). I popped into a wonderful shop making and selling lampwork beads. They had a booth with a torch set up for demonstrations and several of our group got to have a go too! My bead was more a than a little wonky but the artist spoke no English and I spoke no Czech, so to have achieved any bead at all was a miracle!
There was one more bead factory on the list and the wonderful people here greeted us with a buffet lunch made up of traditional Czech fare with plenty of local beer and liquor. Re-fuelled – after lunch we were able to shop in a room stocked floor to ceiling with pressed glass beads sold in wholesale quantities. This isn’t usually open to the public so was a real treat. We also got to walk around the ground floor of the small factory and here we saw beads being pressed into moulds and then cut. I also saw more of the giant ‘raw’ glass rods up close.
Our final day of the tour was a visit to the Museum of Glass and jewellery – I have to say this is quite possibly the best museum I have ever been to. All of the displays were beautifully presented and it was filled with glass beads and jewellery! It detailed the history of glass bead making in the region and featured an exhibition by Preciosa – that many of us know for its glass and crystals – but it is also Preciosa that creates all of the raw glass rods that are used by the Czech bead factories. In addition there was stunning art jewellery by both local artists and examples from around the world using Czech glass beads in a variety of mediums.
Officially beaded out, we finished our Czech adventures with a cable car trip to a viewing tower at the top of a mountain – from which we could see Poland, Germany and Czech Republic spread out beneath us. An incredible trip that truly finished on a high!
6 Facts That You Never Knew About Glass Beadmaking
1. In order to be firepolished, beads that are 10cm or larger need to be threaded on to wires before going through the kiln to prevent their weight damaging the finish.
2. Pink is a tricky color to get right! Elementary gold particles are added to the raw glass materials to get the color but overheating can lead to discoloration.
3. Pressing the beads is hot work – many bead makers have their presses in their home garages so that during the summer they can work through the cooler nights.
4. Becoming a bead maker takes years of practice to hone the skill. Sadly it is a dying trade in the Czech Republic as many youngsters are choosing to work in the booming automotive industry rather than take on the family trade.
5. When we buy strings of Czech beads they have all been hand strung! Seed beads may be threaded using bead spinners but larger beads such as faceted beads and daggers are all strung by hand as they are not sold in set quantities.
6. There is little wastage in glass bead production. Broken beads are polished up and sold as mixes for kids and artists to use, while other bits are sent back the to the glass manufacturer to be re-processed – or may even be used in road repairs!
7. During Communism the Czechs carried on producing beads, but there was only one company that was able to export the beads. This was Jablonex – which joined with Preciosa Ornela in 2009.