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The World on a String : Just jewelry, you say? Those who savor beads know that even the tiniest can be keys to the histories and mysteries of long-ago eras and distant lands.

September 10, 1993|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cece Cummins thought she could just dally in beads. She would string 1920s Czech glass, trace the provenance of African trade beads, make a few earrings with 400-year-old Chinese carved jade, then call it quits.

But the 25-year-old bead collector and designer, who has a degree in fine arts from UCLA, soon discovered the lure of beads.

"They just sort of took over my life," says Cummins, whose obsession eventually led her to open Ritual Adornments, a Santa Monica shop that offers hundreds of thousands of loose ethnic, ancient and contemporary beads along with original jewelry that Cummins designs.

"People become obsessed with them," she continues, echoing the sentiments of her partner, Joel Mikkalson, 31, and legions of other jewelry designers who work with beads.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 13, 1993 Home Edition View Part E Page 3 Column 4 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Fashion beads--A credit accompanying a photo illustration in the Friday View section incorrectly identified California Map & Travel Center in Santa Monica.

After all, beads were among the first forms of money. They were traded around the world.

"You wonder where they've been and whose hands they've been in," Cummins says. "Each bead you look at has a different history, especially old trade beads. In learning about the beads, you also learn a lot about history and other civilizations."

Beads also tap into two '90s fashion trends: the revival of bell-bottomed, love-beaded hippie styles and the influx of ethnic and ecclesiastical themes. Ralph Lauren used long, romantic strands of colored glass beads in his spring '93 gypsy-ish collection and dark glass beads in long strings for his fall Russian-themed line. Donna Karan showed dark glass and wood beads with big silver crosses, like rosaries, as hip-length necklaces.

Those who can only dream of having designer fashions can easily replicate these looks, as well as assemble necklaces and bracelets, in one of dozens of Southland bead emporiums.

Their stock varies from mass-produced, inexpensive plastic seen on mannequins at teen-oriented Contempo Casuals to antique collectibles found at House of Beads in Santa Monica or Beadwerks in West Los Angeles, to name just two.

Beads can be round or square, tubular or oblong, as small as a pea or as large as a turnip--the only common denominator is the hole. Prices range from 10 cents for a tiny plastic or wood piece to $100 for an extremely rare one.

Most stores have a treasure-hunt, grandma's-attic feel to them, piled high with crates of beads, baskets of beads, shallow troughs of beads and boxes, like an old-fashioned printer's drawer, with dozens of compartments for hundreds of shimmery beads.

Most shops also carry leather, cotton and nylon string, hand-hammered silver clasps, hooks, and other fixings, as bead accessories are known. And the proprietors offer free advice.

"We'll help them make it and design it right there at the store, " says Raylene Fabula, manager of Beads, Beads in Orange.

Michelle Balco, manager of C&S Beads in Torrance, suggests putting together long strands of round beads for a flapper look, leather strands with a single bead for the '90s hippie look, or Austrian crystal beads to accompany a "nice simple dress, if you're going out for an elegant dinner."

Or you can buy a finished piece.

At Ritual Adornment, which eschews plastic beads and those made from animal products, such as ivory or bone, Cummins' creations include earrings of silver and Mediterranean coral beads for $33. A necklace of Tibetan turquoise and Ethiopian granulated silver beads fetches $63. A 63-inch necklace of Czech glass beads in peach, cobalt, crystal and emerald green strung on a black nylon rope goes for $25.

Rita Okrent, president of the Bead Society, a 20-year-old group dedicated to collecting and discussing beads, lives in West Los Angeles and designs jewelry that has sold at Saks and The Hand and the Spirit Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz. She favors ethnic rather than fine-art styles, and her designs sell for $150 to $500.

Bead collecting and designing tends to attract people who can look at a bead that resembles an intricately detailed Eastern European Easter egg and talk for an hour about trade routes, historical expeditions and native cultures.

Many of the designers belong to the Bead Society, whose founding members were loosely allied scientists, archeologists, anthropologists, artists and hobbyists who wanted to pool their knowledge.

"I was working as a research pathologist at UCLA and got interested in ancient beads, but there was very little information and as a scientist I wanted to learn," says Robert K. Liu, who has a doctorate in zoology.

So Liu quit his UCLA job to help found the society, which now has several hundred members. Meanwhile, Liu founded Ornament, a slick and informative quarterly with a circulation of more than 30,000.

Membership in the bead subculture appears to be growing.

Liza Wataghani, a linguist who worked for the U.S. State Department in Senegal before abandoning simultaneous translating for bead wholesaling, says she can't handle any more business. She travels the western United States selling rare and ancient beads out of the back of her truck. Beads are clearly an avocation for her, not just a way to make a living.

"The secret and magic of beads is not the beads themselves, because that's a personal aesthetic, but that they're a conduit that leads you to seek information," Wataghani says.

"You're not just buying the bead--you're buying the history, the culture, the lore," she continues. "If you're not interested in where it came from, I'm probably not interested in selling it to you."

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