Sunday, January 07, 2007

When Murano Beads Ruled the World

Visitors to Venice often succumb to the lure of Murano glass. Few of us realize that the shiny glass beads once were of vital interest all over the world. I was rooting around in the New York Times archives and stumbled upon an article which was originally published on November 30, 1917.

Bead Supply Is Menaced.
Invasion of Italy Affects the World-wide Monopoly of Venice.

Washington, Nov. 27.--The menace to Venice from the Austro-German campaign [of World War I] in Northern Italy strikes sharply at one line of trade in which the whole world is interested. It is the trade of glass beads. Venice is the bead capital of the world. In the South Sea Islands, the heart of Africa, under the North Pole, Tibet, Patagonia, at the uttermost corners of the earth will the handiwork of the Venetian artisan be found. In this country tons of beads from Venice find their way into the handiwork of our Sioux, Chippewa, and Five Tribe Indians.

Harvey Carroll, American Consul at Venice, in a dispatch just received by the Department of Commerce, says that the Venetian bead-making industry is a monopoly and controls a world-wide exporting business, shipping to Africa, India, Oceania, Asiatic countries, Europe, and the Americas. It makes the beads that are used as money by certain tribes in the Congo and in German West Africa, and ships many thousands of tons of bead ornaments to the savage as well as the civilized nations of the world.

The offices of the company are in a magnificent old palace at Murano, the Palazzo Trevisan, which boasts frescoes by Tiepolo. The foundries and factories cover many acres of ground. Before the outbreak of the European war this company kept in storage more than 4,409,245 pounds of manufactured beads. At the present time less than one-fourth this quantity is in stock, and production has greatly decreased, owing to difficulty in securing fuel and raw material.

While exploring, I found the Venetian Bead Shop, which has some interesting information on blowing glass beads and other information. I know nothing about them, but if you're interested in Murano
beads, this could be a place to start.

A friend (thanks, Marie) sent me a link to Prairie Edge, which claims to have the " last and the largest collection of Italian glass beads (over 2,600 different styles and colors) from the same Venetian guild that supplied fur traders in the 19th century. The Societa' Veneziana Conterie closed its doors in 1992 and Prairie Edge acquired all the remaining inventory, over 70 tons in all. View exquisite examples of finished Plains Indian beadwork. Most of the beads on display are offered for sale in Sioux Trading Post." How the collection wound up in South Dakota is not explained.

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