A Secret Bead Stash in Old Bohemia

Right after the Velvet Revolution, we began visiting the glass-making areas of Northern Bohemia, in the Czech Republic. We toured factories, bought beads and asked everyone if they had any old beads they'd like to sell. We were always told that the Communists had confiscated and sold them all, 40 years before. Our Czech friend, Mikhal, watched us do this for two years.

Finally, at the end of one of our visits, the day before we were supposed to return home to Oregon, Mikhal said, "I have some beads at my house you might like to look at." We followed him home. It turned out that "home" was his grandfather's former bead factory, where Mikhal's extended family had been living for the past 140 years.

The furnaces were in total disrepair, but many of the old tools and retorts of chemicals remained. Mikhal showed us his great-grandfather's horse-drawn enclosed carriage in another building. It was beautifully preserved, and probably worth a fortune now. Finally, he took us to another small building, where he pushed aside a pile of old boxes to reveal a hidden stairway to a small room in the attic.

And, there it was: the Ur stash, the bead treasure of Northern Bohemia we'd been searching for! Mikhal's great-grandmother had hidden some of the old beads. It was her connection to her long dead husband and their life 40 years before. Later, Mikhal's grandmother had also preserved the beads for the same reason. No wonder Mikhal waited so long before revealing them to us! He explained that they only decided to part with these family heirlooms because they wanted to build a new house now that the Communists were gone.

We worked from dawn until dark (there was no electricity in the building) going through every little package and sorting by desirability. Then, we and Mikhal carefully packed them all in plastic bags and crated them up for their journey to Portland.

Mikhal's grandfather pioneered the metallic and irid finishes the Japanese are copying today. According to Mikhal, his great-grandfather's beads were the only ones whose surface finishes could survive the trans-Atlantic ship voyages to New York. When the Communists took over, they confiscated his beads and equipment, but he refused to give them his secret formulas. The formulas still survive today in Lichtenstein, but are irreproducible without the water (and who knows what dissolved minerals) from the original factory well.

These special beads are now all gone. There were only 200 kilos of them and they didn't last long after people learned we had them. They were, after all, the last of their kind, and no one makes such colors today. But, we thought you might like to know how we find some of our beads. We're always on the lookout, and sometimes they appear in the strangest ways.

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