A while back, I wanted to make a gift for a friend who writes historical novels, and I thought that a rosary that might have been a medieval "souvenir from the Holy Land" would be something she'd enjoy. So I was searching high and low for some beads made of olive wood, hopefully olive wood that grew in the Israel-Palestine area.
Olive wood beads aren't too easy to find, though Rosary Workshop now sells them online. ) I finally found a business that would sell me as few as 1,000 beads, so I ordered them -- most of the folks I found turn out to be wholesalers and normally their minimum is 3 to 5 thousand. (Also the fact that they're having a war over there can't make doing business any easier.) Cautionary note: I wound up paying about $12 for the beads and $30 for shipping because they were sent by the fastest method -- I didn't think to ask.
They arrived and are indeed quite nice, with attractive wood grain. They also don't have a varnish or finish on them, which is nice because I could do whatever I wanted with them.
For the ones I was using for gifts, I thought I'd dip them in beeswax that was scented with frankincense and myrrh, so I bought the ingredients and started experimenting. I strung the beads on a strong thread (so they are easy to fish out) and tried leaving them for various lengths of time to "soak" -- and got the best results from melting the wax, putting the beads in, and leaving the jar in the oven over the pilot light (and with the oven light on) overnight or longer. The wax solidifies, so it has to be re-melted the next day so you can take the beads out. The beads then need to be individually rubbed with a rough cloth and the bead holes cleaned out with a toothpick to remove excess wax. I'm not sure how well the scent will last.
For the marker beads, I chose natural-colored mother-of-pearl, the same size (8mm) as the olive wood. Even though they're the same size, they are easy to distinguish because they feel different. I don't have any historical reason for using mother-of-pearl: I chose it because I have a Jerusalem souvenir rosary and that's what it uses, and it seemed plausible. I strung the whole thing on silk thread and added a small base-metal Jerusalem cross.
I sent the gift rosary off and it was much appreciated, so I decided to make one for myself as well. This is the one that got made specifically for the Kalamazoo exhibit:
The "ampulla" or little container at the bottom is from Billy and Charlie, which has an excellent selection of medieval-reproduction pewter items. I also asked them if the top of the ampulla could be sealed, and was delighted to find they actually line the neck of the container with pitch, so it really can be sealed in period fashion. I had a small vial of water from the River Jordan, so following their instructions I put the water in, heated the neck of the flask to melt the pitch, then squeezed it flat with pliers. Just to be sure, I folded over the top twice and flattened the folds -- it's a little untidy, but I expect the originals were too.
You can, by the way, get a small number of olive wood beads for somewhere between $2 and $6 if you simply buy an inexpensive olivewood rosary online. A lot of places sell them as modern "Holy Land souvenirs". The ones I've seen are all very shoddy and cheaply constructed, with very lightweight base-metal chain links and beads that are not very well sanded. I'd recommend buying the olivewood beads from Rosary Workshop, which are nicer.