Beads were the earliest form of traded items. They are as old as 72000 years have been found in Lebanon and were the primary medium of trade before different forms of currency were introduced. These findings are rare however and not much is known about them as there is very little documentation accompanying them.
The earliest examples of beads and beading were found amongst the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Here beads were made from clay, soda, lime, and sand. Everything was mixed into a paste and blasted with fire and a bluish glass covering was formed around the clay. Thus giving rise to the first examples of a bead. These beads are known as faience beads.
It was the Egyptians back in 3100 BC who perfected this into an art form. Their method of making these beads was so good that faience beads are still made pretty much the same way. This later evolved into full glass bead which can be made the same way as faience beads and requires more time in the fire.
This was probably discovered by accident by leaving the beads too long in the fire or by heating unevenly. The beads then ended up as part clay and part pure glass. This happened around the 18th century BC and the two forms of beads segregated into different art forms. The faience beads remained popular as they were a lot cheaper and could be manufactured at a faster rate.
Glass beads were the more premium versions and used for expensive and rare artifacts. In Europe, beading started a lot later around the 13th century. Initially, shells and animals bones were used as beads. By the 14th century, the Europeans also discovered how to make glass beads. These were used to make necklaces and other decorative items often employing a floral design.
Primitive method of bead making
On the other side of the world in the Americas, a more primitive method of bead making was used. The Cherokees used commonly available items such as bone, dried seeds, berries, teeth, claws, and sea shells to make beads. These served more as an instrument for storytelling and spreading folklore rather than for decorative purposes or use as jewelry.
Initially, beading used to be simple. It was either woven as a simple necklace or used to decorate. Beads were used to decorate the ends of headbands, neckbands, headgear along with items of clothing. As time went by more and more intricate works of art were created by weaving beads.
As time went by, man began to discover new materials from which beads could be made and new manufacturing methods and today they are made from a variety of different materials such as glass, plastic, synthetic fiber, etc. The art form has also evolved. It has become a lot more intricate, it has also become a lot more accessible. Beads can be purchased very cheaply and decorative items can easily be made from them by almost anyone.