Some tiny hanks of antique metal beads that a member of my partner’s music group showed me last week have inspired this post. I knew the moment that I saw the tiny bead hanks emerge from their old cigar tin home that I was looking at antique French cut beads.
Most of the tiny size 18/0 beads were still on their original threads in their tiny 2-inch hanks. It was such a pleasure to watch the unmistakable sparkle that their single ground faceted side produced. These beads, often referred to as Charlottes, were first used in France in the 1840s for making beaded purses.
They were also widely used at the turn of the 19th century in Peranakan beading. Peranakan beading is a form of bead embroidery that was used by women of the Chinese community (Peranakan) in the Malaccan Straits to create beaded items for their wedding chambers. These items included wall hangings, pillow covers, slippers, vases and spectacle cases. Peranakan beadwork is highly coloured and uses the most wonderfully intricate floral motifs and Chinese symbols to create works of art. It was the job of a betrothed woman to produce the beaded items for the wedding chamber as part of her dowry. The detail and scale of this beadwork meant that many hundreds of hours of unpaid labour went into adorning the wedding chamber. Peranakan beading declined after World War II, so pieces from the early 1900s are very collectible and very expensive.
It was in Singapore that I first saw an original early 1900s piece of Peranakan beadwork up close. It was a breathtakingly beautiful wall hanging for above the wedding bead. The hundreds of unpaid hours that had gone into its making was very evident. It was the same day that I first saw a stash of the beautiful vintage Charlotte hanks that had been used to create the original beadwork. I had just finished taking a beading class with Robert Sng (see photo of Robert at work) a Singaporean beader working to keep the art of Peranakan beadwork alive by making and selling Peranakan beaded slippers and giving classes. At the end of my second class with him he opened a drawer in his shop to show me some beautiful antique Peranakan beadwork and his stash of tiny hanks of antique Charlotte beads that he had bought in France. The beadwork was stunning and the tiny hanks of beads a thing of beauty. They were so dainty and sparkly. Robert uses the antique Charlottes to bead his most beautiful and intricate slipper designs. Each pair of slippers take him over 80 hours to complete and he sells them for around 800.00 Singapore dollars. Whilst that’s more than the Peranakan women received for their beading labours $10.00 per hour is barely a living wage in Singapore. Robert says that he does it as a labour of love to keep the art alive it but it seems sad and unfair that such little value is placed on his skilled beadwork. He is such a delightful and passionate advocate for this traditional bead art. Mind you, recent conversations amongst the Etsy Beadweavers Team suggest that he is not alone in that. Many contemporary beadwork artists in the US and beyond struggle to earn more than $10.00 an hour for their stunning work. Things of beauty do have intrinsic value but those who make them do need to eat, pay mortgages and generally survive. The tiny hanks of Charlotte beads used by the French beaded purse makers and the Peranakan beaders were so common from the 1840s and through to the turn of the 19th century that they sold for just a few cents. Now you can buy them online for between US 20.00 and US 30.00 per hank. I wonder if in another 100 years the labour of beadweavers will increase similarly, or will we still be struggling to earn a living?
If you are ever in Singapore you can see Robert’s work in his shop - Little Shophouse, 43 Bussorah St, Singapore. Phone: 6295 2328). The art of Peranakan beadwork, like the hanks of antique French beads I saw in Robert’s shop is now becoming quite rare and today Robert is one of the few remaining practitioners of the art. It’s a great privilege to see the work and meet the delightfully friendly man behind it.