Not since the hippies donned their "love beads" have those tiny treasures--now cropping up on shoulders, ponytails and earlobes--enjoyed so much attention.
Some say the current popularity of beads is an offshoot of the still-hot ethnic look. Others point to a growing appreciation of unique, handmade accessories.
For whatever reason, beads are big in this fall's fashions: dangling from the fringe of suede jackets, dusting the shoulders of evening gowns and garnishing gloves, handbags and hair ornaments.
"If you look at the fashion magazines almost every picture shows beads in one form or another, whether they're in earrings, belts or hair," says Chuck Paddock, co-owner with Lori Holman of Beads-Beads in Orange.
But beads, which have been used for barter and adornment since the beginning of man, have been through plenty of bad times, too.
"Throughout history, they have been considered trivial, something to trade for something you really want, like gold," says Joan Eppen, president of the Bead Society in Los Angeles.
"People's fascination with beads tends to go up and down," agrees Susan Milette, co-owner of the Bead Shop in Laguna Beach. "But now there seems to be a greater national interest in beads than there ever was. Even boys are into it."
Milette and Paddock sell thousands of beads in countless shapes and colors: carved bone and ivory, molten glass, cut stone and crystal. Some are new, others are ancient.
Some of the most popular beads among collectors are African trade beads, many of which are old, handmade tribal objects that have traveled the world; Venetian chevron beads named for their intricate V-shape designs, and prayer beads from Buddhist and Islamic groups.
Many jewelry makers like the new shapes: fish, red chili peppers, surfers, crosses and skulls. They select an assortment of different beads and thread them on wires to create their own pieces.
Prices range from a few cents per bead to several hundred dollars for some antique strands.
Spread across Milette's shop, which she owns with partners Analee Philippi-Dixon and Virginia Mason, are bins brimming with beads: silver globes from Africa, glass strands from Czechoslovakia, porcelain balls from China, snake vertebrae from Asia. During the summer, the store is abuzz with young men and women collecting tiny baubles on black trays, scrutinizing little treasures that will be taken home and threaded for earrings, hair ornaments, necklaces or belts.
Strands of old African trade beads and talismans fill one corner, jewelry-making equipment and displays fill another, all sharing space with boxes of wooden, glass, plastic, stone and metal beads in thousands of shapes and colors.
Paddock has three rooms filled with beads in countless varieties. Like Milette's they come from all over the world, some dating back hundreds of years.
Both Paddock and Milette buy from a variety of sources all over the country, including African bead sellers who visit their shop.
Eppen at the Bead Society, which has about 30 Orange County members, says an influx of African trade beads beginning in the 1970s piqued America's recent appetite for beads.
"I think that's what initiated the current interest," she says. "I don't really know why the beads came here, maybe because the Africans were really poor and needed the money or because they were changing their mode of dress" and were wearing fewer beads.
To bead lovers like Paddock and Milette, a bead is like a chunk of history that has been passed from trader to trader, gathering cultural information along with its patina.
"Personally, I'm most interested in the history of the trade beads, in learning the movement of the beads and what they've been through," Paddock says.
"It is a link to other people," Milette says. "Most all cultures used beads. Nomads found that beads were more portable than clothes or other belongings."
Milette says she has always loved beads.
"I think with the first $10 bill I got in my hot little hand when I was 10 years old, I asked my mother if I could go to Los Angeles and buy beads," she says. "I've been buying them ever since."
Most stores that specialize in beads, including Beads-Beads and the Bead Shop, have salespeople who will help customers create their own styles. Workshops on jewelry making are frequently taught at the Bead Shop by Milette and her partners, all members of the Bead Society.
Paddock says his customers pick out their beads and often make their jewelry right in his shop.
"It's do-it-yourself jewelry," Paddock says. "You don't have to know anything about it. We help show you how, and you pick out the pieces. That usually starts them on a whole rampage of making jewelry."
A good place to prowl for beads is the 900 block of South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. In addition to the Bead Shop at 899 S. Coast Highway, there are two other stores to visit, one that specializes in beads and one that doesn't.
The Beadline at 995 S. Coast Highway, owned by Donn and Naomi Cantonwine, has thousands of beads, along with a large selection of jewelry-making equipment. Townsend's, at 911 S. Coast Highway, specializes in ethnic fabrics and clothes but also has a good assortment of beads and other tribal jewelry.