There were more natural gemstone beads at this year’s JCK Show than in years past. This was partly because more cabochon/bead material was available in the market (thanks to the vast quantities of material coming out of Madagascar), and partly because of the economy, which helped boost sales of less-expensive—yet still genuine—stones. Beads could be found in a number of sizes and shapes, such as barrels, spheres, tires, and briolettes. Spinel, tsavorite, aquamarine, iolite, and especially Madagascar sapphires were very popular.
Carol Ackerman Designs utilizes small spinel beads for necklaces, strung with pendant drops or gemstone accents, and uses aquamarine beads set alongside diamond rondelles. Bill Heher at Rare Earth Mining uses more unusual beads, such as tsavorite (Kenyan and Tanzanian green garnet). Laura Gibson Designs, Tucson, Ariz., uses an array of fairly common gem materials, such as fire opal, lavender chalcedony, and tourmalines, and makes marvelous use of Australian bicolor (green-gold and blue) sapphires mixed with chrysoberyl in briolettes.
Briolettes have increased dramatically in popularity over the past five years. Gem artist James Alger features Madagascar sapphire briolettes, including pinks, greens, yellows, purples, and blues, in a bracelet that can be worn for both fashion and elegance. While beads can be considered as an inexpensive use of inexpensive material, remember that the weights of beads—especially deceptive in briolettes—are often twice what you would anticipate for faceted goods, and therefore can dramatically affect the cost of the finished piece.