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Thematic Essay | Design

The Bead Of Design

By Robert Curtiz
November 28, 2008
The bead was an unmistakable example of symbolic design, a building block of language and trade. Its repeated colors and patterns, balance, and cordage, signified an reality. 
Art Nouveau Brooch
Gold and Opal Art Nouveau Brooch

From the beginning, symbolic design was the art of seeing beauty in nature. This first and truest art personified the spirit of nature, which had no beginning, or end. Symbolic design was a canvas of the mind where certain imperceptible proportions, colors, interconnected planes and spaces, began to cohere. The ability to comprehend a pattern in the colors, shapes, and nuances of nature suggested a continuous design, which was a basic element of primal artwork: cup marks, meandering lines, circles, hatchings, and dots. There was little regard to realism, and abstraction was considered a spiritual expression of what it meant to be human, the more abstract the design, the more subtle the meaning. The art of suggesting the beauty and continuity of nature in minimalist color and simple line was evidence that nature and life balanced and complemented each other.

Ancient people were drawn to patterns that suggested the continuity of nature and life. For thousands of years the Khoisan, who are the earliest-diverging human group, migrated across southern and eastern Africa, creating the oldest continuous artwork: a red line with blue and white dots etched and painted in the surrounding mountains. This ancestral cosmography is a thread of light, which outlines the lineage of ageless social bindings and memories. Each generation added its witness to the continuity of life; layer on layer of dawn-indigo, dusk-red, and moon-white. Without a written language, the Khoisan thread of light recorded the nature of design as a backdrop to everyday consciousness.

The bead was an unmistakable example of symbolic design, and a building block of language and trade. Its repeated colors and patterns, balance, and cordage, signified an underlying intent to explore a reality that lies beyond perception, and make sense of the world. Among the oldest beads were the ones found in Blombos Cave, in southern Africa, which were worn as far back as 77,000 years ago. They were flawlessly drilled Nassarius mollusk shells that were dyed with red ochre. The early aesthetic of beads created a symbolic ancestral code that would define the mythic patterns embedded in ancient wearable art, and establish the connection between nature and life. The bead of design opened up the possibility of creating something that would say I am here, and I am alive through the ritual of being seen.

I am alive, became part of the social fabric. The art of being seen became a reality through bead making and costume, which strengthened family ties, and friendship and defined gift-giving and trade.

Although it is impractical to pin down the origin of trade, it is reasonable to assume it developed within patterns of interconnected tribal structures organized around language, stone working, and design. There is evidence that European tribes traded tools, looms, musical instruments, stoneware, beads, ceramics, grinding stones, and carved figurines beyond their tribal homeland. Nomadic tradesmen found that certain shamanic colors and shapes were valued more far away; the rarest colors of natural gems, carving stones, and precious metals became the primal basis of exchange. There was a demand for amulets and beads carved from lapis lazuli, obsidian, and quartz, which brought specialization in production and trade. By 10,000 years ago, there were trade routes through Europe, Asia, and Africa, and beads were highly prized as trade goods.

In the ancient Liangzhu culture of southeast China, about 5,500 years ago, jade was a storage vessel of knowledge and memory. The color of jade outlined its spiritual substance and defined its completeness. The lapidary artist integrated color and design by envisioning them as the contrasting forces of the stone, which were desired for the conception of its spirit; working into the saturation and opaqueness of color, until it became a window into the spiritual realm.

About 5,000 years ago, the workshops of Mohenjo Daro, a city contemporaneous with Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, made chalcedony, carnelian, jasper, turquoise, paper-thin gold disk beads, and glass beads, which were renowned throughout the ancient world. The merchants of Mohenjo Daro developed trade routes to Afghanistan, Egypt, India, and China. Along with beads, there were ceramic, glass, and stone amulet-seals, engraved with ritualistic shapes such as bells, triangles, stars, zigzags, loop lines, spirals, and crescents. The artisans of Mohenjo Daro marked their beads, wool textiles, block print cotton fabrics, and silk tapestries, with amulet-seals, as a code to identify their goods, and to maintain the status of a consistent trade symbol in the marketplaces along the south coast of India, eastern Mediterranean, and the trading routes of Asia and Europe. Over a period of time, amulet-seal art developed an abstract value, which was the origin of coinage and trade marking.

Without a written language, ancestral people were reconciled to anonymity. The cup marks, meandering lines, circles, and beads, are often the only surviving artifacts. The bead was a building block of language and trade, and a part of the ancient social fabric which said I am alive. The lines, colors, and textures of lapidary, jewelry, textiles, embellishment, ceramics, and metal work, trace their common thread back to the bead of design. Within it unfolds the beauty of nature, which is the best evidence that nature and life balance and complement each other, as one design flowing together, the one becoming the other.

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