Shipwreck Beads

Some years ago I was given a small container of dusty beads by a family friend, Georgie who thought they may be interesting to use in my jewellery. The beads had been recovered from a Dutch shipwreck off Guernsey by her friend, a local diver, with a vast knowledge of the sea and it’s wrecks around the Channel Islands. The wreck site has been recorded (ID-MGU6374) and the small samples of beads which he had recovered as they were in danger of being lost, were reported to the Receiver of the Wreck.

Georgie is a keen historian and has researched and written several publications about the East India Company in particular and so, knowing that she would appreciate something made from the beads and to thank her, I made her a pair of earrings.

Only having a small amount, I had wanted to use the beads carefully but, time had taken over and last year I realised that I had not done anything else with them. I thought that using the beads would make an interesting project during the Devon Open Studios event and so, last September, I came back to using the beads again.

The ‘Shipwreck’ beads, their story and the mystery of where they had come from and what they might originally have been for certainly did prove of interest to lots of our visitors. I was exploring the idea of ‘rediscovering treasures’, and had made small pieces of highly textured and aged looking silver to use with the beads and made up a few pairs of earrings during the event. I barely had an opportunity to photograph them as they sold literally as I was making them  and one visitor came back and asked me to make a bead necklace for his wife who, after hearing even the limited information that I had, fell in love with the idea of owning and wearing such a unique piece of history. I quickly ran out of the beads and so asked Richard- the diver, if I could possibly have some more.

Earlier this year, I was really excited to receive another larger package along with more specific information about the wreck and the beads. Richard had given a small sample to Historic England for analysis as he had heard that they were also investigating another wreck with very similar looking beads. From the bead analysis, the opinion is that the wreck is indeed thought to be of a Dutch trading vessel which was lost, along with it’s cargo of numerous lead glass beads in assorted colours and shapes, off St Peter Port, Guernsey in the late 17th Century.

Below, I have shared some photographs of how the beads looked when they were first lifted from the silt of the seabed clearly showing the level of deposits coating the beads exterior and blocking the threading holes. Much work was required to clean the beads in order that I could use them in my jewellery and what seemed liked many, many, (and then some more!) sessions of soaking and rinsing followed by gentle brushing finally removed much of the salt and silt. Countless more cycles in my ultrasonic cleaner were also necessary to remove the silt from the holes which finally allowed me to thread them on to wires for even more brushing. I was amazed at how many of the beads which, even after soaking, had looked black were in fact yellow or green and strangely, the white beads were the ones that cleaned up the most easily coming out from soaking looking almost new. Having said this, I have purposefully kept as much of the weathered and worn patination as that is what makes them so special.

From my own research of other examples of Dutch traded beads from this period, I’ve learned that the opalescent white beads, of which there are only a very few, are sometimes referred to as ‘moon beads’ but my personal favourites are the iridescent, black barrel shaped ones as I can never resist anything with an iridescent surface!
I can’t wait to get back to making more with the new beads that are now clean, making them up in to jewellery pieces ready to show at this year’s Open Studios in September.

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