‘Russian Blues’ were a popular type of Trade Bead produced in old Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) during the 19th Century. Their popularity among African and Amerindian tribes stems from the fact that, unlike most Trade Beads which were typically oval or tubular, these particular Trade Beads were faceted like precious gems. Most beads comprised eighteen or twenty-four facets, however larger, elongated beads generally had twelve. These particular Bohemian beads were commonly produced in a limited spectrum of dark to mid blue, and ranged in size from 5-12mm. Early 20th Century beads were produced in green and lighter blue shades.
The moniker “Russian Blues” derives from the fact these old Czech beads were brought in vast quantities to the US and Canada by Russian fur traders in the 19th Century. Following the discovery of Alaska by Vitrus Bering in 1741, Russian merchants began exporting large quantities of glass beads, copper kettles and tools in exchange for sea otter pelts. Captain James Cook set sail for America in 1778 in an attempt to find out more about the endeavors of the Russians, and it is allegedly his reports which prompted both English and European merchants to follow in their footsteps. By the mid 19th Century, European merchants had established numerous trade networks in African and America, and Russian Blues played a central role in the exploitation of the regions for commercial gain.
Early Russian Blues were created by a process known as “drawing” – similar to that used for Venetian Chevron Beads. First, a bubble would be formed at the center of a glass tube by pulling it whilst hot. This would form the perforation hole. A second puntile (a long, hollow metal tube) would then be attached to the tube at the opposite end, and the glass pulled until the desired width was achieved. The molten glass would be cut whilst still hot, and after cooling, the sides ground by hand to achieve facets at specific angles. Later Russian Blues were cast in molds, however, were almost always hand finished in the same manner.
Faceted Bohemian Beads, Exhibit 11. Picard Beads
Russian Blue Trade Beads, History. Active Artist Network