It is generally accepted by archaeologists that the first beads were made from seashells, but very early examples of carved bone, seeds and small nuts have also been found. Humans adorned themselves with bead jewelry long before recorded history, and by the time writing was developed it had become a relatively refined craft. Many of the styles, materials, and techniques referred to in the earliest writings are still in use today, so this is not only ancient but current at the same time.
Seashell beads, especially, are still very much in demand, and a hot item in summer fashions. The supply is virtually inexhaustible, broken shells are collected pre-polished by the waves, and dyed vivid colours whilst retaining their natural lustre. Bone, coral and wooden beads also remain as popular as ever, but of course the chief natural material is the wide variety of minerals available.
The really huge item right now, however, is traditional, yet man-made, and that is decorative glass. Glass-making itself dates back over 5000 years and glass beads date back almost as far. By the 9th century CE in Europe skills and demand had reached such a level that in places such as Murano in Italy 50% of the residents were making decorative glass, and much of this was for jewelry. Fashions go in cycles and this style of bead reached peaks of popularity in Art Nouveau times and again now.
The fashion for longer, dangly earrings has led to the use of more beads of all types. Glass crystal beads of the style made famous by Swarovski are currently very popular, including pavé styles and teardrops. Tiny seed beads are woven into wire designs to create sparkle without the need for cutting stones.
Improvements in the plastics industry have brought us synthetic beads that don't look "cheap" and some of the acrylic rhinestones on the market today flash fire almost as well as a cut gemstones. Resin beads imitate many gemstones extremely well, and often allow uniformity in design, although they are not necessarily any cheaper than the real thing.
The biggest growth area in recent years has been in decorative metal beads. When I first started making bead jewellery the variety was quite limited, and quality was often poor. There are now thousands of designs, well-made for a sensible price, in a number of different materials, finishes, and colours.
Visit Old Bazaar at eBay