The Bead Stringer: A Glass Act

Gayle Stringer's handmade glass-bead jewelry

Handmade glass beads made these necklaces stand out at The Bead Stringer booth at Loveland’s Art in the Park.

As I wandered through art festivals this summer in Boulder, Loveland, and Fort Collins, I noticed numerous booths where artisans were selling their handmade jewelry. Most of the designs I saw were made primarily of metal . . . some were artfully arranged strands of gemstones . . . others were combinations of metal and gemstones.

Then I fell on the booth of The Bead Stringer at Loveland’s Art in the Park. Gayle Stringer’s stunning glass beads, the only ones I had seen in my wanderings, drew me in for a long, close look.

My eyes soon fixed on the necklace pictured above at lower left. Close up it looked as if she had embedded small white flowers in glass.  “How did you do it?” I asked her. Gayle did better than tell me – she showed me.

With Two Hands and a Flame . . .

Gayle and I met at her Fort Collins home one afternoon after her day had ended at Beattie Elementary, where she teaches gifted children. Gayle led me to her small studio in the corner of her basement and set about making a bead like the ones I had admired at her booth.

Gayle Stringer forms the center layer of a glass bead.

Molten black glass wraps around a stainless steel mandrel to form the center of a bead in the deft hands of Gayle Stringer.

She attached a gas torch to the edge of her worktable and took a black glass rod from the shelves behind it. Next she selected a mandrel — a stainless steel rod the diameter of the hole she would need for stringing the finished bead. She turned on the torch and began to heat the end of the glass rod. As the glass melted, she held the mandrel beside it and turned the mandrel slowly. Molten glass collected around the mandrel until there was enough for the center of the bead.

As I watched Gayle work, I developed a new appreciation for the expression “red hot.” The black glass glowed so red in the flame of the torch that I could never have guessed that the color she had chosen was anything but red.

Still rotating the mandrel with her right hand, Gayle picked up a green glass rod in her left hand and held it in the gas flame. When the glass started to melt, she placed a dot of green on four sides of the bead. Trading the glass rod for a hooked tool, she pulled the hook through green glass all the way around the bead. The visual result: Four green leaves encircling the bead.

Pressing dots of red-hot glass into a bead

Gayle Stringer presses dots of red-hot glass into a bead before shaping the dots with an X-Acto knife.

Flowers came next. She heated a white glass rod and placed four small white dots close together; she turned the bead and made two more clusters of white dots. Then she gently pressed each set of four dots of white glass into the hot glass below. Deftly wielding an X-Acto knife, she lightly cut each of the twelve petals down the middle for a true-to-life look.

The flowers still needed centers. Gayle heated the tip of a yellow glass rod and  placed a tiny dot of yellow in the middle of each white glass flower. After pressing the dots into the bead, she picked up her X-Acto knife again and gently pierced each flower center to give it depth.

Real flowers appear to be embedded in the beads

A final layer of transparent glass created the illusion that these floral beads by Gayle Stringer contained real flowers. Other beads in this necklace are made of onyx or sterling silver.

That step completed the flowers but not the bead. It took a final layer of clear glass over the entire bead to create the look of flowers embedded in glass.

Gayle pulled the bead from the heat of the torch at last. She had kept it turning there the whole time to prevent gravity from pulling it out of shape. Now she needed to keep the glass from cracking, which could happen if it cooled too quickly.

She stuck the bead, still on the mandrel, into vermiculite, which had been warming in a crock pot on the corner of her worktable. The warm vermiculite would allow the bead to cool safely and would not stick to the hot glass. Eventually she would be able to pull the bead off the chemically coated mandrel; later, in her small kiln, the bead would become as unbreakable as a toy marble.

Whew! What a lot of two-handed precision work for one bead! The necklace I had admired included seven. Gayle told me it takes her about five hours to complete a matching set of necklace, bracelet, and earrings.

A Touch of Silver for a Bead of Glass

Silver decorated some of the beads I had seen at Art in the Park, and I was curious about how Gayle had added the silver touches.

Silver leaf on a green glass bead by Gayle Stringer

Silver leaf applied to hot sea green glass created the design on this bead by Gayle Stringer.

She showed me a piece of silver leaf — a scrap of pure silver as thin as garlic skin and as supple as cloth. She had taken a small piece with tweezers and laid it on hot glass to create the bead in the photo at right. Reminding me of a globe with green seas and silver earth, it was one of my favorites in her collection.

Next she pulled out a spool of pure silver wire just 1/100th of an inch in diameter. After cutting off a couple of inches, she demonstrated how she makes beads with waves like the ocean. Then, picking up the silver wire with tweezers in her left hand and turning the mandrel slowly with the right, she set the silver gently into the glass waves, where it became the sparkles on the sea.

Once again Gayle’s two hands working flawlessly together held me spellbound.

A Touch of Glass for Yourself

This weekend Gayle will be erecting The Bead Stringer booth at the Fine Arts and Fine Crafts Show in Estes Park. More than one artisan has told me it’s Estes Park’s best show of the year.

If you can’t make it, visit The Bead Stringer’s Facebook page for pictures of the booth and close-ups of Gayle’s handmade jewelry. See something intriguing? For pricing or for a private showing, contact Gayle by e-mail at gayle_stringer@att.net.

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4 thoughts on “The Bead Stringer: A Glass Act

  1. Kathy Kuenzer

    Absolutely fascinating. Who would have guessed how much time and expertise goes into making a single bead. I will look for her work at upcoming shows.

    1. Sally Post author

      When I realized how long it took to make a bead, I told Gayle that she didn’t charge enough for her jewelry. She replied something like this: “I know, but I have to sell my work or I’d be up to my neck in beads. I do it for joy.”

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