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She's Got the World on a String

At Mimi Anzaldo's House, There Are Beads by the Bushelful


Gleaming in piles and plastic trays, they could be rock candy, mints or frosted sugar bonbons in mouthwatering shades of pink, blue, yellow, red, white and antique green. But they're not edibles, they're shimmering glass beads, and Mimi Anzaldo had 20,000 at last count.

The Corona del Mar resident began collecting in 1994, after her husband, Pete, bought her an eyeglass chain made of Native American-style glass beads by a Colorado artist. Anzaldo began buying beads herself for jewelry making and fell under the atavistic spell of small objects pierced for stringing.

Some scholars claim humans have used beads for 40,000 years. In any event, glass, ceramic, seed, bone, metal, wood (and, later, plastic) beads have been ubiquitous in world culture since antiquity as religious artifacts, talismans, status symbols and currency. Anzaldo's passion is round lampwork (handblown glass) beads, and her pieces from Greece, Italy, Japan, China, Africa, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Germany and Austria come in faceted rondels, Czech glass, Italian Murano and beads that were "made by an old man in Germany [using] all old materials."

Beads from the '20s to '50s are more muted in color, Anzaldo says, but their texture and shape are striking and varied. She looks for vintage items as well as contemporary pieces made with old molds; her rarest example is a pink Japanese lampwork piece (her favorite type) from the '40s.

The retired labor and delivery nurse and her husband, an ob/gyn doctor, travel whenever they can, and Anzaldo, 42, has lost hours sitting on the floors of shops in Greenwich Village, Boston, Seattle and Scottsdale, searching baskets of beads. She recently attended the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase and spent $5,000 on a shopping bag full of mostly vintage beads. "You look for old tags and beads strung on old cotton, or you hit them against your teeth and try to scrape the paint off. And sometimes you just have to trust your dealer."

Bead dealers, she says, are a breed unto themselves. Conventional retailers abound, of course, but the real characters--and, often, the best sources--are nomads who make the rounds of bead and gem trade shows, individualists such as the dealer known as "the Bead Man," a biker-gang member look-alike who is a font of information and finds.

For Anzaldo, who admits she's obsessed with beads and sells her beaded jewelry at home parties and the occasional store, the allure is about combining artifacts from different eras, taking disparate pieces and "pulling them together from different places, different trips, to have a piece of jewelry end up being beautiful."

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