Tuesday, August 2, 2011



© 2002 The Heart of Illinois Bead Society

Deadly Beads....... 

This month, I wanted to share the story about some interesting beads. One of my student employees went to Peru over the summer, and because she knew I was interested in beads, she brought some back for me, including a necklace and bracelet set.
The jewelry was made with small seeds alternated with regular glass seed beads, strung on what looks like fishing wire. The seeds look like little ladybugs, bright red with a little black dot on one end. My student thought the seeds were naturally black and then painted red on one end. Looking closely, however, it didn't seem painted. When running a finger over the surface, I couldn't feel any ridge where the red ended and the black began.
My curiosity was aroused, and I did a search on the Internet for "Peruvian seed beads." It turns out these seeds are from the Fabaceae family of plants, scientific name Abrus precatorius, common names Rosary Pea, Coral Seed and Crab's Eyes. The seeds come from a pea-shaped pod, are hard-coated and glossy, a brilliant scarlet-red for two-thirds of the length, and black over the narrow remaining third.

What's most interesting about these seeds, however, is that they are highly poisonous! A single seed is enough to kill an adult human if ingested. It is rumored that farmers in India would make the seeds into blow darts to shoot at their neighbor's cattle, and occasionally at the neighbors themselves. Early in this century, 5 or 6 murders were registered annually with this bead listed as the cause of death. (I did entertain brief suspicions about why my student had given me jewelry made from these beads.) lol  Even today, a number of children end up in the hospital each year because they are attracted to the bright red seeds.
Other common uses for the seed are much less dangerous. In Europe, they were commonly used in rosaries, due to their consistent size and shape. (Hence the common name "Rosary Pea" and the "precatorius" part of its Latin name, which means "prayerful" or "praying.") In addition, the juice from the seed has been used as a temporary "jeweler's glue" to hold two pieces of metal together until they can be fused.
The seeds were even used as a weight measure, because of their reliable size and weight. Called a rati, each seed is equivalent to 1.75 grains. To get to this measure was an interesting progression before manufacturing processes gave cultures the ability to create reliable scales - three small poppy seeds equal one black mustard seed; three black mustard seeds equal one white mustard seed; six white mustard seeds equal one medium barleycorn, and three barleycorns equals one rati. Even today, dealers in precious metal and gems use the term "double rati" to indicate 3.5 grains.
So there you have it. A necklace and bracelet set from Peru, which took me on an interesting journey into "seed bead" history.

Footnotes (websites with more information):

No comments:

Post a Comment