The art of glass beads

Inscribed in 2020 (15.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

1.1 Description of the element

The art of glass beads is a heritage closely linked to the wealth of knowledge and mastery of a material (glass) and an element (fire). Over the years, this particular skilled craft has shaped the cultural identity of both communities, each of which, in its own choices, sees itself in this art form.

Known throughout the world since antiquity and documented by sources from the early 14th century in Venice and 16th century France, the art of glass beads covers specific knowledge and shared skills, reflects the use of specific traditional tools and motions, and includes various stages in making and using beads.

Technical knowledge related to production in Venice takes two forms: first, a lume beads (with a blowtorch), where the operator melts glass rods with a torch by rolling them on a mandrel to obtain — depending on the techniques and tools used — various types of beads, which can then be engraved. The second are da canna beads, made by sectioning, softening and polishing a hollow cane, composed of several layers of glass forming a cross-sectional design. Technical knowledge related to production in France can take three forms: solid glass beads are made with a torch and the hot glass is rounded through rotation and gravity; hollow beads are made either on a mandrel, by mounting two parallel discs and joining them, or by blowing into a hollow cane. The beads can then be decorated in a wide range of ways.

The more complex production of “murrines”, which are common in both countries, consists of assembling multicoloured glass canes around a core. 

In Venice, all of these glass rods — be they hollow, solid or murrine — are made on the island of Murano, in the kilns (furnace) of master glassmakers.

In Venice, using the beads that are made entails threading (with the specific feature of using very fine needles gathered into a fan for seed beads, called a semenza), pedal weaving, bead-flower embroidery with metal thread, and jewellery making. In France the focus is on threading and jewellery making.

This knowledge is based on exchange, shared between both communities, which know that they are part of a shared tradition, evident in the joint use of technical terms, such as frite de verre (glass frit) and soufflé (blown), as well as techniques and tools.

1.2 Geographical location and Range of the element

Italy and France

In Italy today, the element is concentrated in the historic city of Venice, the Venetian Lagoon islands (Murano, Burano, Torcello) and in the adjacent territories on the mainland.

In France, where the headquarters of the Association of Bead Artists of France is in Paris, beadworkers are spread throughout the territory, primarily mainland France and more specifically in the regions of Île-de-France (23 workshops), Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (13), Nouvelle-Aquitaine (11) and Occitanie (11).

Historically, making and using glass beads has also been documented in other parts of Europe and on other continents.

1.3 Domain(s) of the element

Domain(s) of the element as  intangible cultural heritage identified according to the Article 2.2 of the Convention:

  •  oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage
  •  knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe