Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Search of Yellow Hearts

    In Peru, I collected fancy glass Venetian beads, strung on string, with occasional crosses and shells. They resembled rosaries, but didn’t have any rhythm or order.   Most of the beads were colored, with a feather design.  But some were special; every once in a while there was a solid red one, with a white core.  The white under layer gave a complex hue to the red glass.  They were slightly heavier than the other glass beads.
     Several years later, I received a strand of plain red beads from Sudan.  These were heavy, had yellow cores, and the same rich, dark red glowing color.  I instantly loved them and perused my books to learn more.  They are called Yellow Hearts, or Cornaline d’Aleppo beads.  They are from the early 19th century, were made in Italy, and traveled to Africa where they were traded.   After those relatively easy acquisitions, I had a harder time finding them. 
      In 2008, on a trip to Ghana, I focused on buying another strand of Yellow Hearts.  Word got out, as it always does, that there was an American lady in town interested in buying beads, and soon enough, Musa, Hudu, Hider, and Paul were ringing the doorbell. Hider came first.  He was a young, soft-spoken Ghanaian, who had a vast collection of beads.  Right away I purchased Dogon glass, agates, and Vaseline beads from him.  Musa, magically and magnetically attracted to the bungalow, came the next evening, overloaded with old Venetians, Mali wedding beads, more old Carnelians, and Hebron beads.  Though I was enchanted with the beads, I never saw one Yellow Heart strand.  I told them all what I was looking for and they shook their heads, “No, there aren’t any here.  They are rare", said Musa.  Hudu came the third night.  He was magnificent:  tall and majestic in his satin robes.  I knew, and he knew I knew, that his visual adornment would raise the price of his beads. But of course it was worth it!  Yet, even Hudu didn’t have the deep red beads I was searching for. 
     A few days before I was to leave I hired a car and drove several hours to Koforidua, the bead market in Ghana.  On the way, I stopped at a bead factory and watched recycled glass, mostly soda bottles, be melted down and formed into the famous recycled glass beads.  In Koforidua I saw hundreds of booths of bead sellers—old beads, glass beads, stone beads, rare and common beads—they all were there.  Well, not all: not one strand of yellow Hearts.
Yellow hearts with sodalite and fossil amber
     Then, two days before I was to return home, gentle Hider knocked at the door and there was a smile on his face.  He opened his satchel, and there was a strand of Yellow (and white) Hearts.  He told me he had gotten on his motorcycle and gone into Niger to get it for me.  I had two thoughts.  The first was that I was astonished that he would travel for days to get the strand for me.  The second was that I was worried that the cost would include his travel expenses.  I hoped  that the price would be affordable.
      It was.  There was a transaction, and we both returned to our homes, satisfied.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Let's talk about amber

Basket of Treasures
I am surrounded by beautiful stones and beads that I have collected while I lived overseas.  As winter in Maine approaches, I feel so lucky to be able to come in the bead room and design some necklace with African yellow hearts from the early 1800's, or Peruvian opals that Julio in Lima sold me as he exclaimed, "Mejor, mejor que antes!" (better than the last ones).  I have a wide assortment of brass and silver,  stone beads and African beads. Actually, while I have collected beads from around the globe, it was amber that I sought.  Below is something I wrote about it:

The Lure of Amber

I first encountered amber in the Middle East.  We were in Jordan in the early eighties, and I was looking at old Bedouin silver jewelry.  The vendor--expats called him Shifty—easily found the houses of expatriates, and rang their doorbells on lazy long afternoons.  Hauling a large bag  brimming of silver jewelry,  copper trays, and Bedouin coffee pots, he trundled into their living rooms, and began unpacking it like an exotic, kaffiua clad Santa Claus..  For us it was free entertainment in our own house.    Shifty picked up a coffee pot—“not one mittel hada (like this) in Jordan” he would chortle proudly.  Well, that was a lie.  There were thousands of those.  Bedouin necklaces were plentiful too; some even had real coral, or amazonite stones.  But once, he held up a necklace with yellow- orange barrels.  “AMBAR: he said in a hushed voice.  “rare rare. Not one mittel hada in Jordan”.   I held it. Amber.  I’d heard of it.  But the price was prohibitive and I had to pass.  However, his voice, the price, and the rarity, gave birth to a new passion  for me.

That was 1980.  Now it is almost 30 years later, and I have collected a lot of amber.  I also know the differences of “amber” and amber, and African amber and Tibetan amber , Baltic amber and Victorian.  Those barrel shaped beads on Shifty’s necklace were not the 50 million year old resin material.  They were Bakelite, though original Bakelite sold in the African trade as amber over a hundred years ago.  African amber it’s called, and it is, in its own right, very valuable and expensive.  Baltic amber is translucent, the real deal, and comes from the Baltic Sea.  Butterscotch amber refers to the color—an opaque rather than clear material.

Amber has become very sought after and thus very expensive.  It isn’t uncommon to find strands of African amber, or genuine amber on auction sites for thousands of dollars.  Single beads go for $20 to $50. There is something addicting and alluring about the beads; is it the color? The texture? The lore? The price? The mystique?

Before we left Jordan in 1985 I had purchased one amber necklace from Shifty; it was long, with silver beads with six large “amber” balls.  I later broke it up, remade it into another necklace.  I have several amber necklaces, mostly on display.  Though my lust is appeased, amber still has a mysterious  power .