Baltimore, "The City That Reads," is quickly becoming "The City That Beads."
In the last three months, two bead supply shops -- Beadazzled and Beadworks -- have opened attracting customers who admit they are becoming beadaholics. They say they do it to relieve the stress of hard times. Or to make extra cash selling hand-crafted necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Or just for the fun of giving a handmade gift.
The addiction knows no geographic boundaries. Beaders have been showing up everywhere -- from Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the first bead societies were formed in the United States, to London and Munich, Germany, where two of the first stores in the Beadworks chain began a decade ago.
Wait a minute. Beading? Wasn't that what back-to nature-folks did during the 1960s? The idea may be retro, but the new beaders say these days stringing materials are better quality so necklaces won't fall apart as easily and the beads have more variety and are more attractive. Avid beaders collect American made glass beads from the Pacific Northwest, Venetian trade beads from Africa, old beads, new beads, beads crafted from a clay-like product called Sculpey.
People who have never beaded before are walking into local bead stores, asking for advice and beginning to bead with an upfront investment of under $50. Although the two local shops sell basically the same kind of materials, they present totally different personas to shoppers.
Beadazzled, a cavernous space in a former bank building at the Corner of Charles and Franklin streets, appeals to the independent and confident shopper who doesn't require a lot of attention. Sales clerks offer help when asked, but they rarely ask if you need assistance.
The smaller, more intimate Beadworks, on the South Ann Street waterfront in Fells Point, has a more down-home feel and provides a table and chairs at the back of the store so novices can get started with help from owner Bronwyn Thompson-Henry and local artists such as Sharon Davis. Loaner tools are also available for work done in the store.
The main problem in getting started making your own jewelry is the fear of the unknown. And Ms. Thompson-Henry sees her role is as a demystifier. Once the mystery is gone, she says, so is the fear. She knows from experience. When she first walked into a Beadworks franchise store in South Norwalk, Conn., a few years ago she, too, was insecure.
"For the first several months, I was queen of the copies," she said, noting that her first attempt was a $12.77 copy of a bracelet that was selling for $350 at the Smithsonian. "Then when I became more confident, I was willing to take risks and become more adventuresome."
Whether or not a beader will save money depends on his or her taste. The initial investment is as low as $10.50 for a pliers and $6.75 for wire cutters at Beadworks. Beadazzled offers a Deluxe Bead Stringing Kit for $35.95, which includes a knotting tweezers, round nose pliers, chain nose pliers, wire cutters, a strand of rose quartz beads, gold tone jewelry findings and a nylon bead cord with a pre-attached beading needle. The beads can range from 2 cents each for a simple plastic bead to $85 for a hand-carved and polished ivory nut that looks like ivory without the guilt of elephants dying for decoration.
Beadworks also offers two bargain options for the price conscious. For $3.50 a one-half cup scoop, you can find German wooden beads that are perfect for children's jewelry as well as a bin of assorted beads and plastic items that can be used in montages or to create art. A "super deals" basket offers assorted beads that have been culled from the last couple of beads left in the bins.
Penny Diamanti deWidt, owner of the Beadazzled shops in Washington and Baltimore, offers a variety of exotic beads because she has been cultivating bead sources since 1970 when she began collecting beads while living in West Africa. Her stores offer a wide variety of Venetian trade beads, silver beads from Bali, crystal beads from Austria and clay beads that she imports from Peru and sells to 200 bead outlets.
"This is not just a fad like it was in the 1960s," Ms. deWidt says. "It's not going to die. I have watched it grow and grow. The reason it isn't going to fade away is because people are learning more and more about beads. It's not just fashion. It's not just a way to make money. It's not just educational. It's a bit of everything put together."