In the Studio: Ceramic Jewelry Beads

Ceramics is being included by some contemporary jewelers as part of a large and varied palette of different non-precious materials. Additionally, many ceramic artists are discovering that the making techniques they already possess can be applied to small-scale bead or jewelry work, including handbuilding techniques such as slab work, mold making, slip casting, and extruding. Being able to apply one’s knowledge to another craft medium allows a maker to expand their body of work, learn new skills, and potentially discover new customers.

How, when, why, and by whom the jewelry will be worn are the first considerations when designing pieces. Decisions about size, scale, types of materials, and function will all be affected by the answers to those questions.

Considerations Before Making

Fired ceramic is hard but can also be brittle, so ceramic jewelry components need to be shaped into a form that has strength (i.e. a tube or a sphere), and should be thick enough to withstand shocks or else be surrounded by a metal finding to protect it.

Holes should not be placed too near the edge of the clay piece and should be made when the piece is leather hard to prevent cracks from appearing during making and drying. Any cracks will become a weak spot when worn.

Shrinkage must be taken into consideration. Clay shrinks during drying and firing, sometimes as much as 18% (although 10–12% is more typical). Be sure to test your clay body to know the shrinkage and make findings to secure the ceramic components only after the ceramic part of the piece has had its final firing.

1 Texture the slab by stamping it or rolling over it with a bisque-fired roulette.

2 Cut elongated triangles out with a sharp knife pointed directly down.

Slab Building Triangular Rolled Beads

Artist Sue Crossfield borrows a technique from paper-bead making to create small, slab-built beads.

Start by rolling out an even slab of clay that is up to ¼ inch thick, rib it smooth, and trim the edges. If you want to make textured beads, impress the surface of the slab by stamping it or rolling over it with a bisque-fired roulette (1). Next, measure and mark elongated triangles on the slab, then cut them out with a sharp knife pointed directly down to be sure you make straight cuts (2). Brush each triangle with a little water, then roll it around a wooden dowel starting from the wider end (3), wrapping the piece around itself (4).

3 Brush each triangle with water, then roll it around a wooden dowel.

4 The triangular slabs wrapped around themselves, starting from the wider end.

5 Form cut pieces around a wooden dowel, then score and slip along the join.

6 Finished textured tube beads (left) made from small slabs (right).

Textured and Rolled Tube-Shaped Beads

Another option is an elongated hollow bead. First, texture the surface of a slab, then after cutting it into rectangles, roll each piece into a tube over a wooden dowel (5). Score then join the two edges with a liberal coat of slip, taking care not to damage the surface texture (6).

Glaze Application

Crossfield threads the dry beads onto a knitting needle before brushing on a cobalt-oxide wash (7), so as not to get finger marks on the drying oxide.

After bisque firing the beads, she threads them onto the knitting needle again, then dips them into a stoneware glaze. Bisque firing prevents the cobalt-oxide wash from contaminating the glaze in the bucket. Using the knitting needle makes sure that the hole in the bead does not become clogged up with glaze (8).

Tip: It is important not to contaminate your glaze with brushed-on loose oxides or other glazes that have pre­viously been applied to the piece you want to dip. Always bisque fire between application of the oxides layer and the glaze layer.

7 With the beads threaded on a knitting needle, brush on a stain or glaze.

8 Dip bisque-fired beads in glaze. 1–8 Photos: David Crossfield.

9 The finished bead necklace. Photo: Dan Bosworth.

Finally, fire the beads to temperature on a bead rack, which keeps each bead suspended on a wire above the kiln shelf and separated from the other glazed beads to prevent any fusing.

To learn more about jewelry how-to techniques, firing, and simple metal findings, check out Joy Bosworth’s book Ceramic Jewelry available in the Ceramic Arts Network Shop at https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/shop/ceramic-jewelry.

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