Tips for Sorting and Identifying Beads

Help! They’re all Black!

by Darlynn Lydick.

I have been the recipient of many bags of mixed beads in the last couple of years. Most of the time, with decent lighting, identifying beads had never been an overwhelmingly difficult task. That all changed when an incredibly large and diverse bead collection crossed paths with two novice bead hounds.

At least a hundred thousand beads of all types were mixed and loose in sagging cardboard boxes. Many strands were not labeled. All the beads were at least 30 to 35 years old and had been in storage for years. Box by box, strand by strand, bead by bead, we began sorting and identifying our beads.

One particular bag I remember was filled with hundreds of black beads. At first glance through the wrinkled, dusty plastic bag, they appeared to be quite similar, despite their varied sizes. On second glance, I knew I needed to get my glasses and a better lamp.

I hope you find this compilation of tips useful in sorting the assorted and identifying the unlabeled. Each tip plays an important role in bead identification, in no particular order.

You’ve Got to See

Get a good lamp. A bright desk lamp or magnifying light will make it easier to identify patterns, textures and other identifiable markings on any bead. A jeweler’s loupe or magnifying glass will help you see specific details close up.

Sort by Color, Shape or Size

Simple sorting is probably the best place to begin, especially if you have a variety of beads mixed together. Start by making piles of like-colors, shapes or sizes using a towel on a tabletop (this keeps them from rolling around) or use the floor if you have solid-colored carpet.

Simplifying your surroundings lets you focus more on the bead color itself. Sitting on an ornately-patterned Oriental rug is not going to make sorting easier, especially if you spill some!

Check the Temperature

One of my favorite ways to get a clue about what type of substance a bead may be is to take its temperature. Give all your beads a few minutes without handling them. Then, pick them up and feel how warm or cold they are. Closing your eyes for a minute may even help to increase your tactile skills.

Cold beads are usually stone, glass, metal or shell. Materials that feel closer to room temperature (or warm quickly in your hand) include amber, wood, plastic, bakelite, nut, bone and ivory.

Compare Sounds and Weights

While you are handling the beads for temperature, use the opportunity to hold a few of the same kind of beads. Do they feel heavy or light? Black buffalo horn beads will feel much lighter than black onyx beads of the same size.

What sound do they make when jiggled in your hand? If you listen closely, you may be able to hear the difference between a handful of lapis and a handful of lapis-colored glass. You can also use some confirmed beads to compare for weight and sound.

Finish and Uniformity

I found in the identifying process that my bag of black beads had beads of several different materials, each kind with its own finish. I had preliminarily sorted by size, color, and shape; then by temperature, sound, and weight. Examining the finishes brought me even closer to completing my task.

The beads with the highest gloss turned out to be onyx, while several also-shiny beads turned out to be vintage glass. They had just a bit of a luster to them, but in the end it was the uniformity of the shape that gave them away. There was a small crest on each bead near the holes. Once I started identifying the glass beads and pulling them from the pile, it was easier and easier to separate them. They were identical.

Drilling and Carving

The way beads are carved or drilled also gives clues to what material it might be. For instance, ivory beads will always be more finely carved than bone. You may see nicely-carved bone beads, but you will rarely see ivory that is rough and rustic in its carved details.

Look for clues around the holes: stones may show wear or in the case of the onyx, it had small chips around the holes. Glass beads also have a light, powdery look to the inside of the hole if they ve been drilled. If the glass is transparent, you can usually see the faint frostiness of the drill-hole from the side of the bead that is not drilled.

Tests and Sacrifices

Sometimes you get to the end of the identifying process and you still have some beads that stump you. There are a few household tests you can perform. A cotton swab with fingernail polish remover can separate natural coloring from color-enhanced or dyed beads (but can also change the finish on some natural beads, so be careful).

Running a bakelite bead under hot tap water for a couple minutes will produce a carbonic acid smell, while plastic does not. You will know what carbonic acid smells like if the bead is truly bakelite, I promise!

Bravest of all, would be to get some heavy-duty pliers and really sacrifice a bead by breaking it (do this with a heavy paper towel over the sacrifice, so fragments don t fly). The inside of the bead offers yet more clues: Is the inside the same color as the outside? Does it crumble or break off in flakes? Does it look natural or man-made?

History and Resources

Remember to use all your resources. Although many of our beads were not marked, a good number of them were still marked with the identifying tags from the original wholesaler. We were able to identify many of our black beads as black jade (nearly impossible to find these days) because we also found boxes of strands with the original tags still on them.

We also consulted with the original designer from time to time when we were really out of guesses. Previous owners can be very helpful in identifying beads. We know that some of our crystals are from the 1940’s and some of our shells came from an old bead store in Florida that closed in the early 1970’s, because we asked questions and took notes.

Mystery Beads

If all research, sorting and identifying methods are exhausted, still leaving you with what we call Mystery Beads, do what we do. Put the beads in a plastic bag marked “Mystery Beads” and keep them in your car or purse. You never know when you will run into someone (other bead friends, gemologists, antique dealers, etc.) who might be able to help you solve the mystery.

For me, this was a challenging little experiment to complete. I learned a lot with one bag of beads. Have peace, though, in knowing that it is all trial and error to figure these things out. My bead partner and I once labeled a $300 strand of natural blue chalcedony as “Vintage Glass, $5.00”. Luckily, no one bought it that day!

Guest author Darlynn Lydick lives in Houston, Texas and is a member of the San Antonio and Houston Bead Societies. She now owns The Bead Drawer , and formerly The Bead Hive, which specializes in vintage coral, ivory and Swarovski crystals.

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  1. Darlynn,

    Thank you for such wonderful tips–I often wonder at times if the beads are real (particularly, the fresh water pearls–which can actually be coated glass). I like your suggestion of using a jeweler’s loupe, magnifying glass and lamp.


  2. Hector Fernandez says:

    Thank you very much, I needed your teachings. Very clear and very well explained, like a hands-on activity. I bought online two strands of “blue quartz”, when I saw them I did not like them. I looked with the loupe and they had perfect bubbles, also I broke one and a flake came off. Now I bough strands of pink morganite (opaque), they are hard because I broke one and tried on glass and it scratched the glass, so it is stone but I have no way to know whether it really is morganite, in a tiny hole on one of the beads I discovered what seems a bit of red paint. I will be eager to read all of your writings. Thank you very much. Hector

  3. Jill Mitchell says:

    Beads are my passion but I love how I can enhance their look with wire. Being new to wire I don’t have a favorite. But I love the versatility of working with wire. So many shapes, sizes and looks. With beads or without, it’s all good for me. I love the idea of making my own findings, a great way to personalize a design. I would love to learn more about the joy of working with wire. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I’ve used some of your tips and look forward to your newsletter.

  4. Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Mary (UK) says:

    Thanks Darlynn for a brilliant article. I am very new to jewelry making but the one thing I have found is adverts that state beads are glass but when they arrive they look and feel like plastic to me.

  6. tabitha says:

    Hi. I am new to the jewlery-making world but have found myself to be quite good at it. I have yet to figure out how to differenciate between the materials I use. I don’t know whether its silver or steel..or..silver lined..this is playing a huge role in me not wanting to sell. I received all my supplies and beads from relatives and not stores so I have not a clue what value it may add if my materials are of greater value. I also put a lot of time into what i do. So if I could figure this out I can finally take the first big step…sell them.

  7. I am impressed with what you had said as I had no understanding about the quartz you had mentioned so all of this information is quite valuable. I notice too when I purchase gemstones sometimes I forget by the time I get home exactly what I have purchased even if it is one stone at a time…..thank you as this helps.

  8. Great information. I’ve had more problems of finding out the hard way that beads were dyed. Also, consider price when purchasing. If they are very inexpensive consider they are not very good or real.

  9. This is really helpful. It happens with me while buying beads, specially while buying online. I was searching for metal beads, bronze. Of course I received, but sm metal dyed with bronze like finishing. With little scratching, I could see the actual metal used which had some other color properties.

  10. A clue on glass beads is the white powder inside. This actually is due to dipping the metal rod into ” bead release” liquid before “picking up” molten glass onto the rod, during the creation. After beads are finished and properly annealed, there is white inside where the bead was on the rod.

  11. Wonderful article. I’m new to identifying beads so this is extremely helpful! Thank you.

  12. Becky, you’re very welcome! I think it’s fun to learn the identities of beads, and I hope you’ll enjoy it too! 🙂

  13. Debra Berry says:

    As a beginner that is a good thing to know when you are buying in bulk.
    Thank you.

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