The Bead Collector
1956. My first beads were pop-beads, a 1950’s fad. I coveted them and competed with my girlfriends for the longest strands, draping myself in ropes of them. My favorites were pearls. Then one day the cheesy paint on one of the “pearls” peeled off It revealed a bead no more lustrous than skim milk. I was stunned. Why did people think children should be satisfied with crap? At the age of eight I was pondering authenticity. When my mother made me dresses , she finished all the seams, even though no one saw them. She understood quality and craftsmanship, so why couldn't my pop-beads be pearly through and through?
Alienated, I abandoned my collection of stupid little-girl beads. Exposed for plastic, they lost their magic. Eleven years later I left home forever.
1968-1970. No more beads for me till the late Sixties in Chicago, when strands of wooden and glass beads became essential to the Age of Aquarius. In the dorm and other cozy peace-and-love venues, I joined my friends around the communal bead bank and strung the multi-color concoctions that broadcast our identity as children of a new free-thinking free-loving tribe. But it was all ephemeral, wasn’t it? The promises exchanged over lengths of seed beads were as cheap as my plastic pop pearls.
When I left town to reinvent my faded self elsewhere, I took along my tubes of green and blue and red glass beads. But really, I already had enough strands of love beads and enough of their illusions.
1990. Twenty years later I got hooked on beads again. Traveling through Thailand with Blue-Eyes, I started picking up up cheap wood and seed necklaces from Hill Tribe vendors – fun souvenirs. But then in one night in a smoky Chiang Mai antique shop, I found a necklace made of four strands of worn carnelian beads, separated by blue glass seed beads. Among the beads were small silver bells that made the whole thing jingle-jangle when I walked. I spent a hundred dollars for them. If I’d spent the same money in a Bangkok opium den I could not have found a more powerful addiction. The paint didn’t peel off. And they made no cheap promises. I wanted more.
1992. Bordertowns. The zone between safety and surprise, anxiety and adventure. Desperate, dangerous places where smugglers and refugees trade anything for hard cash.
Peshawar, on the western edge of Pakistan, is the gateway to Afghanistan and one of those turbulent crossroads. How Blue-Eyes and I got there on a sweltering August day is a long story. I'll only say that we were about as ragged as two travelers could be after four weeks on the road in central Asia. We set off for the bazaar because what else was there to do? Peshawar was not about museums and restaurants; it was about politics, guns, and cash. The air was sooty and the sidewalks in disrepair, but we trudged off.
Andar Shah bazaar was a cluster of 3- and 4-story buildings where a crazy quilt of canopies turned alleys into dark mazes. Our guidebook said we would find jewelry there.
We were disappointed. All we saw was shop after tiny shop selling glittery gold bangles and fresh-faceted gemstones. Shadow-like women in floor-length burqas swirled in and out and around us, while men whose eyes were lined with kohl beckoned for us to see their wares. The narrow lane of shops gave way to even narrower gangways. In a honeycomb of workshops the size of walk-in closets, men squatted at their anvils fabricating perfectly dull gold chains.
Then an old man in a turban for us to follow him. We kept walking. He caught our attention again. “Come,” he insisted, as if he knew us. We were suspicious. What did he want? The bazaar was beginning to feel creepy. And yet there are those moments in life when you have to stop worrying and follow a beckoning stranger.
We slipped behind him into a passage under a sign said Afghan Jewelry. Our guide led us to a miniscule shop festooned with beaded necklaces — lapis lazuli and carnelian, metal and glass. "Beej," the old man said as he pointed the way. “Beej!” Next to that shop was another, and another, and another. We found ourselves deep into a decrepit little shopping mall. Men and boys lounged on carpets and pillows, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and inviting us to browse. "Old," they would say. "Old."
I was dazzled. Overwhelmed. Necklaces that would look unique displayed in a Soho boutique were suddenly ordinary. I knew enough about beads by this time to understand that some in this vast array were new, some were antique and some were ancient, but I hesitated, unsure of what I knew, sensing that my knowledge was still superficial, that I was still vulnerable to the glossy fakery of painted plastic pearls.
But Blue-Eyes immediately picked up a strand of chalky bluish and white carved beads. “Faience,” he said, referring to the glassy earthenware developed by Egyptians. “These are ancient. And look at these.” He took a strand of misshapen greenish metal bead from the rack. My first reaction was how ugly they were. But Blue-Eyes pointed out that they were delicate bronze bells with a heavy patina, excavated no doubt after centuries of burial. Okay, I was relaxing, getting my bead eyes on.
I was drawn to strands of small, shaped carnelians, marked with white designs. They were more expensive than the others, so I walked away. But I couldn't forget the bit of magic I felt and the niggling sense they might be special. We returned the next day. In the ninety-degree heat, we bargained with the dealer over hot tea, the sweat dripping, amounts being offered and counter-offered on slips of paper. Blue-Eyes bought the faience and the bronze bells. I bought the carnelians.
When I got home I found my special beads instantly in a reference book. They were etched carnelians, an ancient product of the Indus Valley civilization, found also in the proto-city of Ur (Iran) and in Afghanistan. Perhaps they'd been etched in A.D. 600. Perhaps they were a thousand years older. The beads Blue-Eyes picked out fell into the same category. Not that we didn't also pick up a bunch of cheap baubles too, but we were happy.
Bordertowns are chaotic places. You better know what you're looking for. You better know value without your reference library in your pocket. The border between knowledge and ignorance, between confidence and doubt is a risky place indeed.
Three months later, after sixteen years of flirting and testing and loving, Blue-Eyes and I decided to get married. I had found the real thing.