By Dianne Tucker-LaPlount
I’m guessing that just about every person who experiences the amazing drawing power of a bead has a story to tell about how they got that way. Here’s my story.
In my idealistic youth, I worked as a volunteer at a printing press in the West African town of Calabar. ( I think of that time as a peak period in my life.) Most people in Calabar were Southeastern Nigerians — Christians or pagans. But the town also had a small community of Hausas. They were Muslims from Northern Nigeria and pretty much kept to themselves, but they had a good reputation. Hausas, it was said, were good night watchmen. They were steady and didn’t steal.
Hausas also served as traders in exotic wares. Every other Saturday or so, Ibrahim -— the “Hausaman” whom we young American women came to think of as our own personal trader — would show up at our compound with a new supply of goods. He wore a regal, if dusty, white robe and a distinctive Hausa cap,
Helped by a small assistant, he would spread a big, not-too-musty blanket on the ground in front of our bungalow. To me it was always an exciting ritual. Three or four of us, sitting cross-legged at the edges in a semi-circle facing him, watched as he pulled each item out of a giant bundle: mainly wood carvings and piles of colorful, strung glass beads. Then the really dramatic part, the bargaining, began.
I had very little money. The strands I bought were tourist beads, none of them stone that I recall, certainly not carnelian. At that time, I didn’t know carnelian beads existed. But my delight in beads goes back to those days.
Years later, my Arizona sister-in-law took me into a place of beads in historic downtown Prescott — Gabrielle Liese’s tiny (but to me extraordinary) Bead Museum, before it moved to its grand home in Glendale, Arizona (and recently to San Diego’s famous Minghei Museum of Folk Arts). I was dazzled by the timeline displays in cabinet after cabinet, going far back historically and into prehistoric times. In the adjoining shop, I bought my first carnelian — a deep orange-red date-shaped bead with a hand-buffed finish. The bead was the type called pema raka by the Tibetans, I later learned.
Something inside of me gets excited when I hold an old, old stone bead in the palm of my hand. Especially a carnelian, one of the first of the hard stones to be cherished by the ancients.
When and where did the bead originate? Who made it? What tool did she or he use to bore a hole into a hand-chipped roughed-out of microcrystalline quartz eons before electrically powered machinery or laser needles? Surely the boring of a single bead must have taken endless grueling hours and a huge effort of the arm and wrist. No wonder early stone beads were the province of royalty!
Who was the first owner — A Sumerian queen? Member of a Pharaoh’s entourage? Bearded Hittite general? Sweetheart of a humble, death-defying Indus Valley artisan clever enough to smuggle it out of the workshop one late night?
Over hundreds or thousands of years, on how many sweating necks did that bead hang — as an heirloom, a curative “medicine,” a protection against evil, or a symbol of status? How often did it change hands, perhaps as payment for a clay pot or a stretch of cloth, or part of the cost of an ox or a camel? How many owners took it finally to their grave?
What amazing route did the bead follow, zigzagging perhaps many times across continents and seas, to end up in a tray on my shelf?
Ha—a single small hand-cut perforated pebble can really get the imagination working!
To see a display of exquisite ancient carnelian jewelry visit the Venerable Bead shop on U.S. 395 and Lagoon Street, which opened its doors wide last Friday evening to welcome and celebrate its latest show: “The Carnelian Collection of Dianne Tucker-LaPlount,” local teacher and writer. Dianne assembled this magnificent collection over decades of global travel, many times deliberately treasure-hunting the best carnelian where it was first unearthed. Thus, many of the pieces in this display were shaped, perforated and polished by skilled artisans of old in far-flung corners of the world.
You can see and admire this very special display during the next few months.
The Venerable Bead at 275 South Main Street in Bishop is open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.