Wednesday, February 07, 2007

It isn't easy, bea(d)ing green...

I'm sure I've already bored everyone with my rhapsodizing about Twelfth Night, but I'm not quite done yet. What can I say: it was a big event, with everyone dressed in their best medieval clothing, the perfect opportunity to show off rosaries.

I had new clothes for the occasion, and took the opportunity to make up a rosary for which I'd had most of the parts for awhile. Except for the materials, it's a reasonably close copy of an original from about 1600 which is now in the Schatzkammer (Treasure House) of the Residenz Museum in München (Munich). I haven't seen this one in person yet; the one time I was in München was thirty years ago, before I was interested in such things. I do plan to go back.

Emerald rosary, ca. 1600

I saw the photo of this in Eithne Wilkins' 1969 book The Rose-Garden Game, of which I published a review here a couple of years ago. It's not quite as bad a book about rosaries as I used to think: the author does have some interesting and soundly factual information in there. The trouble is, you can only tell which is the good stuff and which is not if you've already read several other books.

Emerald rosary, detail

The original piece is one of those incredible objects of art that makes you stand there with your mouth hanging open once you realize what it really is. The gauds (marker beads) are enameled gold, and the description says they are set with tiny diamonds, though those aren't visible in the picture. The spacers between beads, and the bead caps on the cross, are also gold. With the exception of one piece, the entire rest of the rosary is composed of emeralds. Yes: I said emeralds -- real, solid emeralds, at least 6 millimeters in diameter. The only exception is the oval-shaped pendant, which is a "doublet," a sort of sandwich of emerald and glass that jewelers put together to make the gem look bigger than it actually is.

Emerald rosary, cross

Wilkins says the original is German, from around 1600, but I wonder. By far the biggest source of emeralds around that time was in the New World, and Spain owned most of that. It's certainly possible this rosary could have been designed and assembled in Germany, but it could be Spanish, which would account for the relatively large amount of gold used. There were plenty of wealthy people outside Spain, of course, but it would be interesting for a gemologist to examine the emeralds to see where they're from.

The sheer monetary value of this thing is astounding. We hear about wealthy English nobles wearing "the price of an estate" on their elaborately embellished sleeves; this rosary must have been worth the price of a good-sized castle and its entire estate, at least. It's probably worth that much today, too.

However. My excuse for making a copy was the sheer glitz of it all. It's still a spectacular piece of jewelry even though mine is all glass, and the "gold" is gold-colored base metal. The pendant, I bought from a company that sells chandelier parts. (They have good prices and fast shipment, by the way.)

Emerald rosary replica

I wanted something a little special for the Ave beads, and wound up buying hand-made beads from Barefoot Beads, who are also nice folks and gave me good service. I explained my project and asked if they could send me beads that might be slightly irregular and not all the same color, and that's what they did. (The original emerald beads aren't all the same color either.) The one thing they couldn't do was to drill a second hole through one bead so I could use it for the center of the cross, but the jeweler I take all my "weird" projects to was happy to do it.

Emerald replica, detail

Making the cross was a bit challenging. I did have that center bead, with two holes drilled through it at right angles to each other. I wanted to construct the cross the way I think the original was constructed, with the silk thread that holds the beads coming down through the top bead, out to the sides to take in the "horizontal arm" beads, through the bottom bead to hold the pendant, and then back up through the cross.

Emerald replica, cross

This involves making the thread turn a right angle, twice, in the space inside a bead where there's very little room to maneuver (and there is no way you can get your fingers in there). I was quite pleased with my own cleverness when I figured out how to make it work.

I thought of trying to find a tiny hook to catch the thread, but in the end I wound up using two twisted-wire beading needles. I buy steel ones, which are sold for bead weaving, because they're a little stiffer and easier to handle than brass ones.

What I did was to insert the eye of an empty needle through the hole I wanted the thread to come out of. I then threaded the other needle, and pushed it into the hole that was at right angles to the empty needle. I gave a tug on the empty needle, and if it wouldn't move, I knew I had succeeded in putting the second needle through the first needle's eye.

Then all I had to do was to run the second needle completely through the bead, and I could pull up on the first needle to make the thread turn a right angle and come out the side hole. I did the same thing when I needed to divert the thread for the second horizontal arm, and this was even better, because using an eyed needle meant I could just push the thread already in the bead out of the way, ensuring it didn't get caught in the second thread.

This probably makes more sense if you see it rather than hearing me talk about it. Here are diagrams showing the steps in the process:

Step 1:


Step 2:


Step 3:


The finished center bead (threads colored for clarity):