The process of cutting and polishing gems is called lapidary. All gems are cut and polished by progressive abrasion using finer and finer grits of harder substances. Technicians used to lay face down on a bench pressing the beads onto a stone grinding wheel, with water running over the stone to soak the dust.
Glass beads are more modern. Glass was not considered worthy of polishing compared to stone. However, the Czech bead makers invented “fire-polishing”. After the glass bead has been pressed in a mold and faceted into the desired amount of cuts, it was ran through a furnace at extremely high temperature to just melt the surface of the glass to give them glossy finish. The original fire-polishing machine looked like a 20-foot long metal box with a conveyor belt running through it. The beads were placed on metal pie trays, one bead layer deep, and ran through the box. After they cooled, any extra coatings would be dipped or sprayed, and then either heated or baked.
The technique used today is basically the same, but the technician stands in front of the grinding wheel, which is about 8-feet in diameter. A ratchet fixed to the wheel has an attachable piece of equipment with multiple holes in a line. The technician scoops this into a bucket of glass beads, and the beads fall part way into the holes. He then secures the beads so they won’t fall out, attaches the equipment to the ratchet and presses it against the revolving grinding wheel. Water is run over the wheel, and the bead is ground for a few seconds, and then released. The ratchet is applied, the beads turn a little, and pressure is again applied to the wheel on a new section of the bead. This is done until the bead is totally faceted all the way around. The room in which this is done might have up to 20 or more wheels, and the noise is deafening.
Once the beads are finished being coated, fire-polished and inspected, they are strung on cotton thread. This can be done either by machine or by hand. Some factories farm out the work to people in the local villages who supplement their income by stringing the beads on a part time basis. The factory drops off sacks of beads with instructions on how they are to be strung. For example: 25 beads to a strand, 12 strands to a bundle, 4 bundles to a mass, x number of masses to the sack. Usually it is the women and children who do this work. If the beads are round, they can use a machine that looks like a treadle sewing machine, but with a large bowl on top. The beads are poured into the bowl with 12 needles are laid into it. The bowl is then spun around and beads get threaded onto the needles and run along miles of thread. When a large amount of beads are on the thread, the strands are measured off in the quantity required and tied off.
Some of the factories are so small that all the work is done cottage industry style. The beads are pressed at one place by an experienced presser, then shipped off to be faceted, then taken to a larger factory where it is fire-polished, and then distributed to the stringers. If a coating needs to be applied, the beads might first be sent to a coating facility, then baked, and then strung. If the bead maker is too small to handle his own exporting, he will take the beads to a packer for packing, and finally to an export agent who will prepare the documents and handle the financing.
When you consider all the steps taken making beads, it’s amazing how inexpensive they are!