According to the late international bead expert, Peter Francis, Jr., the practice of making glass beads in the city of Venice and on the nearby island of Murano goes back at least to the 13th century. That’s when the earliest references to glass beads are found, as both adornments and for embroidery.
While numerous bead-making techniques were developed in Murano, some of the earliest tiny seed beads were likely produced by a method known as “tube drawing,” which is thought to have been invented in the early 15th century by Angelo Barovier, whose last name is still associated with a prominent Murano glass factory today. As Francis describes it, a glassblower would form a small gather of molten glass into a hollow shape, hold the hot piece steady for an assistant’s punty, and then wait as the assistant ran away from the glassblower, stretching the hollow shape into an incredibly slender tube, as long as a football field. After the tube cooled, it would be cut into tiny pieces, which would be heated again to smooth out any rough edges.
Because they are both labor intensive and inexpensive, seed beads have not been a significant part of the Murano bead economy for years. Another type of Murano bead has fared better. It is made using a variation of lampworking called lamp winding, which dates to the 18th century. In lamp winding, a flame (the lamp) is used to heat a small piece of glass until it glows. The malleable material is then “drawn” or wound around a wire or thin rod known as a mandrel. The warm glass on the mandrel is then shaped by the artisan, with additional layers of near-molten glass added as needed. When the bead is shaped and colored, sometimes with gold leaf, to the artisan’s satisfaction, it is left to slowly cool. Originally, mandrels were made of iron and coated with a thin layer of clay to make it easy to remove the bead from the mandrel, but in the 20th century, Murano bead makers began to make their mandrels out of copper, which dissolved when soaked in nitric acid, leaving a hole in the middle of the bead.
Another type of lampworked bead is the wedding cake, whose often gaudy decorations can resemble icing or floral (fiorato) designs. Murano beads are also shaped with the aid of molds, while others are based on multicolored mosaics of millefiori.