Beads 101: The Ultimate Beads Guide

Beads come in all shapes and sizes; they can be tiny and they can also be huge and made of all manner of weird and wonderful materials. If you find yourself feeling a little confused by the sheer volume available, read on for a whistle stop tour of what’s what.

Glass Beads

Glass beads make up one of the biggest categories of beads available and encompass everything from tiny seed beads measuring just a few millimetres, to hand blown lamp beads, at up to an inch or two. They can be transparent or opaque. Some have decoration inside (e.g. crackle effects or stripes of colour), whereas others have coloured coatings to the exterior, often iridescent, to add shimmer. Glass beads can be both smooth and faceted and also come in a variety of pressed shapes which are made in moulds. Crystal beads are very popular (Swarovski), as they contain extra lead which results in the most amazing sparkle and brilliance. Prices vary enormously and depend on size, quality and method of manufacturer for example: 1 x handmade lamp bead (13mm x 16mm) is £2.86 and a pack of 24 x Swarovski 4mm bicone beads is £2.09.

Preciosa 4mm Czech Fire Polished Glass Beads Copper Clear, Pack of 100 (61GLF028) and Swarovski Crystal Pack of 24 Bicone, 5328, 4mm, Crystal Ab (62SW013X)

Plastic Beads

Plastic beads are often easy to get hold of and sold in craft stores and supermarkets. They represent one of the most cost-effective options and are often sold in large multi packs of 100 or 500. Plastic beads are light, bright and perfect for children. Made in moulds, plastic beads will often have a visible seam running round the centre and usually have a large central threading hole. Available in transparent and opaque finishes, plastic beads don’t have the shine or sparkle of glass but make an ideal choice for fun, elasticated bracelets worn layered with other materials.

Plastic Dice, 9mm, Mixed Colours, Pack of 100 (67ACP001)

Metal Beads

Metal beads are usually hollow and are made from thin metal sheet, stamped into moulds. They are available plain, with a high polish or patterned, often ribbed, fluted or with shaped relief. Enamel beads have a metal core. Materials include base metals, precious metals and plated metals available in a variety of silver, gold and antique finishes. Sizes range from 2mm – 16mm (approx.) and prices depend on material and size.

Sterling Silver Beads Laser Cut 5mm Pack of 10, 2 Hole, Frosted/sparkle Finish (NVQ LF5X) and Sterling Silver Beads Plain Flat, 4mm, Pack of 10, 2 Hole Bead (NVQ D21X)

Stone Beads

Stone beads are available as irregular chips, nuggets, faceted rondelles and smooth round beads as well as a whole host of other cut shapes. They are dense and heavy compared to other materials and take on a lovely warmth when worn close to the skin. Threading holes can be extremely small so it’s vital to check this before purchasing if possible. Generally speaking, sizes of standard round and oval shapes tend to stay around 4mm, 5mm, 6mm and 8mm. Real stone beads, particularly semi-precious varieties can command high price tags so this is a factor to consider. More irregular, one off designs, can be very large, sometimes 3cm – 4cm across. You may well have seen larger flowers or butterflies made from Rose Quartz, Clear Quartz or Onyx, usually the more inexpensive stones which are in plentiful supply.  Stone beads are normally sold in 16” strands (although this can vary slightly), therefore the smaller the bead, the more you will get. Prices depend on stone type and finish. You should expect to pay more for faceted beads whereas chips and nuggets can be relatively inexpensive.

Moss Agate Semi Precious Round Beads 4mm, 16″/40cm Strand (67SPAS04) and Blue Lapis Semi Precious Round Beads, 12mm, 15.5″/39cm Strand (67SPLB14)

 Wooden Beads

Wooden beads, like plastic are beautifully light and are generally sold in simple shapes such as round, oval, tubes or rondelles. Wood is either sold in its natural state or dyed into bright colours so very different effects can be created with the same material. Threading holes tend to be on the larger side so they are ideal to use with leather cord and perfect for little hands to play with! Wooden beads are often quite chunky so expect to find larger sizes freely available. Sold either in larger multi packs or 16” strands, wooden beads are rarely expensive. They are a great place to start your beading journey.

Tiger Ebony Round Beads 6mm 16″/40cm Strand (67WDTE23)

Ceramic and Polymer Clay Beads

Ceramic beads come in many different forms and are normally glazed and often painted with detailed designs. (The glaze is vital to protect the delicate surface). Polymer Clay beads are moulded into various shapes and require no paint as the clay is already coloured. Designs can be glazed or unglazed but is not required to protect the surface. Ceramic beads can be very traditional, some originating from China and India whilst Polymer Clay examples are often more novelty themed. Designs can be abstract or figurative so vary enormously. They are normally sold in small multi packs of 5 or 10.

Polymer Clay Rosebud Beads, Lilac, 8mm, Pack of 10 (67SYFI08)

These make up the basic bead categories available. Of course, there are many more specialist designs, variations and niche products out there, but it is these basics that you will find in all the bead suppliers, up and down the country, so there is plenty here to get you started. Check out to see the full range.

Written by Joanna Varney

Joanna has worked in and around the jewellery industry for well over 20 years. She has designed and created her own pieces as a designer maker, as well as working in jewellery retail on a much larger scale, producing designs and NPD for some of the UK’s largest high street retailers

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