The story of beadmaking is not just about their ornamental value but the important technological steps that emerged to create them.
Early shell beads or thin stones were easy to perforate using perhaps a piece of flint or a simple palm-rotated drill.. Thick stone beads required a relatively more sophisticated drill of some kind for a more sustained effort when making holes in the beads. These same drills also made fire by rubbing the drill bit against another piece of wood. There is archaeological evidence that neolithic dentistry required the tool, too! Indeed, modern lapidarists do use dental tools.


J.D. McGUIRE 1896.

The bow drill (above, first from the left) was probably the most commonly used. It is like a bow and arrow held horizontally. The user either held the cup like object in one hand to hold steady the upright drill and moved the bow to and fro with the other, creating friction. The next one along is the pump drill, then the disc drill. The Inuit strap drill is on the far right. These early beaders realised that it was not the drill that actually wore away the stone but the abrasives they used.

Although there are now modern drills available, many East Indian artisans still prefer to use the hand-held bow drill although they have upgraded to diamond-tipped drills (and electricity for the grinding and polishing). Some still use the time-honoured technique of drilling from both sides of the bead to produce a "wasp-waisted" bead - so if you do come across such a bead, you'll know why.


A. Coppa et al. Palaeontology: Early Neolithic tradition of dentistry. Nature 440, 755-756 (6 April 2006) :

Lois Sherr Dubin (1987). The History of Beads: from 30,000 years to the Present. Harry N Abrams Inc.