Bead Glossary
images, bead references and sources

What do you need to know about beads? A Bead Glossary describes bead names, size, shape, finish and how they are sold. There are many different types of beads so a little background and some illustration can be helpful.

This Bead Glossary lists descriptive attributes of beads that may strike your fancy. It is not all-inclusive and it tends to ramble, particularly about the beads we love best! It is but a bead surf excursion that we hope you'll enjoy, with links to imagery of beads on the web.

Most Artists' bead patterns will suggest a preferred bead; most
Bead Sellers will list bead size and quantity estimations in their on-line or print catalog. Reading the bead seller's Bead Glossary is highly recommended as they often qualify terms in ways that help make selections at their site. The ramblings here describe our favorite beads and as well as curiosities that emerge through personal discoveries and discussions at beading bees. We hope to encourage further investigation to inspire your own art.



No guarantees are implied in any way for the content or accuracy of the third-party sites.

Acid-Etched Beads
Glass beads etched in acid to remove shine. Etching glass also changes the texture. Sometimes a matte, non-reflective finish is just the right kind of bead for a project or to complement the shiny bits in your creation. You can find non-shiny beads by searching for glass beads called matte (so many kinds) or frost, sea glass, or even acid-washed beads. You can etch your own glass beads using products such as Etchall® dip 'n etch or Armour Etch. As with use of any chemicals, read and follow all cautionary directions.

Acrylic Beads
Not fake - they are REAL plastic,
made of a transparent polymer that dyes well. Available in an abundance of colors and cast, molded, pressed or extruded into wonderful shapes. Acrylics can appear as if they are crystal, glass, wood, even metal, have the appearance of being heavy yet be quite light weight, which makes them prime candidates for costuming ideas that involve many strands or in designs that are heavy, encrusted, or layered. Do we like them? Oh yes, even though we admit that we really are Bead Snobs.

African Trade Beads
The Venetians produced beads for commercial trade as early as the 1400's and other countries were involved as well. Bead trade continues with very old beads are new ones based on old techniques. The variety and novelty of these beads is enormous, as are the resources and opportunities for study. Whether it be from the attributes of glass or the nature of people, certain patterns are continued over time and it is provocative to see a design currently produced, which is also cataloged and collected from a time long ago. Click on the bead shown to view excellent images courtesy of African Trade Beads and read about their trip to Kiffa. They have wonderful pictures of the extraordinary variety of beads out of West Africa today. The Bead Museums will have a bead glossary and photographs with scholarly histories. The galleries and academic links from Africa Direct offer extraordinary imagery. It is interesting to notice that a great number of modern beads in glass, acrylic, or polymer clay are based on these older designs. The past is a wonder of inspiration. Don't miss the discussion forum for collectible beads at with a powerful search engine and literally thousands of high-resolution images of beads posted by participants eager to share and learn.

A natural product, Amber is old calcified tree sap that is cut, polished and treasured as if a gemstone. Why?

Because it is rare, fascinating, fossilized, and can be very beautiful. Think-the movie: Jurassic Park, or even better, the spectacular examples of amber trade beads on Rings and Things Despite it's antiquity, there is a lot of amber sold. Some of it is marvelously genuine; some of it is derivative, such as these sterling-tipped Amber Dust Beads from Exotic India Art Click on the bead for a larger image. Read the vendor's bead glossary carefully, some amber is mislabeled; buyers beware. Learn more about natural Amber at Mineral Galleries and 3Dot Studios' excellent Natural History of Amber

Antique Beads

Antique is one of those terms, like vintage, which has a subjective definition and can applying to a great many different beads. So what makes a bead an antique? Loosely defined, it means beads created outside of the current era. They could include styles and materials such as mourning jewelry, 1930s Bakelite, ancient micro beads, Native American beadwork, Victorian cut beads, south sea coral, ancient terracotta and on and on and on.

Most bead artists are familiar with seed beads of 8/0 and 11/0. But many seed beads marked ‘antique’ will be smaller than 15/0, in sizes more common to a different era: 18/0, 20/0, 22/0, 24/0. If you come upon a cache of 18+ beads, be sure to ask whether they have an equally vintage beading needle (size number higher than 15). You may just come upon an extraordinary find: an ultra-thin needle, treasure it – it’s not easy to replace. Many bead stores will have little if any of these caviar sizes, seek out estate sales or the micro-beads at Barking Rock or the ever interesting Empyrean Beads.

Aurora Borealis
AB (or A/B) is a light reflecting finish applied to the exterior of a bead of any shape or size or material. Other names a bead glossary may have for AB-type finishes are iris, oil slick, or rainbow. An AB finish on a clear glass bead can indeed appear as a rainbow; on beads of color, it is more subtle but highly reflective. The real Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is a fabulous color display in the night sky caused by the interaction between the solar wind, the Earth's magnetic field,
and the upper atmosphere. If you've never seen the Northern lights,
log on to Michigan Tech's long list of Aurora Borealis websites. The image, courtesy of NASA, is a photo of one of Jupiter's moons experiencing an Aurora Borealis. It looks very much like the luminescence of a rainbow AB bead. Click on the image, courtesy of NASA for provocative photos and explanations.

return to top of Bead Glossary-A