On Structure And Serendipity

I was an hour early for Laura McCabe's beading class last night. This was deliberate, as I had a number of supplies to purchase for the class, and buying beads takes me forever because I am ridiculously, obsessively picky about color. Making things out of beads is relatively simple, in theory: you pick a set of beads and a technique, you put in anywhere from one to a billion hours of work, and jewelry happens. I spent a lot of years making things based on instructions I found in books and magazines, and barring a few disasters here and there (I'm looking at you, faux-Native American beading loom) things turned out pretty okay.

The only problem was that they felt like things I'd built, rather than things I'd created. To get more satisfaction out of beading, I was going to have to go right off the rails. I was going to have to design my own patterns using the techniques I'd learned over the years.

I bought a whole buttload of Delicas in various colors on eBay, got my fishing line, and started weaving.

What followed was a series of absolute disasters. Some of them I finished, some of them I was smart enough to abandon halfway through and save myself the trouble. But with each catastrophic choker or lackluster lariat, I learned something about working with beads, about my own preferences, and—specifically—about how beads in tubes that look like they will play nicely together turn out when you're working with them to have vendettas that would put the Medicis and Borgias to shame.

My color sense got stronger, and my designs grew more sophisticated. My bead stash grew from one full shoebox to two. And now, here I was in the bead store, picking out colors to be scrutinized by an expert eye. It felt like a test, though one only I knew I was taking.

Who Invented the Color Wheel?

I began choosing items on the list, limited by what the store carried and by what matched and clashed among the various sizes of round beads, cylinder beads, crystals, and pearls. When in doubt, I buy heads in shades that look like they come from Botticelli's Birth of Venus, so I was looking for pale cream and gold and amber and aquamarine. I went back and forth from one rack to another, so many times that I ended up forgetting one set of beads entirely. None of my shades looked quite right and time was running out despite all my efforts, so I told myself this first pendant would be an educational experience and found my seat in mild despair.

Class began. Laura McCabe was awesome, both as a person (sweet, upbeat, hints of shyness overcome) and as a teacher. She gave us a brief introduction to our materials, handed out instructions, and let us go at our own pace while she walked around chatting and answering questions. I began putting together a bezel (setting) for the round crystal rivoli, just as the paper told me to.

And when I got to the point where I set the stone in its little beaded skirt and began tightening the bezel to fit, something magical happened.

It looked amazing.

The various shades of gold and light blue I'd collected all worked together to make something that looked baroque and delicate. It was entirely different from the rich greens and purples and reds that everyone else was making—lighter and vaguely antique. The aquamarine rivoli was perfectly centered. The tiny gold metallic charlottes winked in the light. I felt like a champion.

Until I got to the bail. Where I found: one of my blue shades was awful.

Just awful. It was like taking one of the crown jewels and dunking it in poster paint. There were presently six of them, soon to be many more.

The Virtue of Editing

I made a decision, went back out to the front of the store, and found me some sweet pearly white beads with a bit of a rainbow shine. Then I took those six blues right off, added the whites instead, and started adding pearl embellishments.

So. Much. Better. My pendant was pretty again. The relief was almost physical.

Here is the pendant as it currently stands, though the photo quality is not the best:

Dark background. An aquamarine rivoli bezeled with gold and aquamarine seed beads, topped with white pearl accents and visible working threads.

Soon there will be more pearls, and some aquamarine crystals and other sparkly bits up top. I love how much it looks like some Renaissance vision of the ocean. I want to make a whole necklace band to match.

Lesson Learned

I think one of the reasons I'm so drawn to beading is that it's quite a lot like writing. Writing also looks very simple in theory: you put words on a page, and eventually a story happens. There's a lot of repetitive action in both: put beads on thread, or string words together in sentences.

But even if you start with a detailed outline—which I nearly always do—things happen that you didn't expect. Characters act out, plot problems reveal themselves as gaping chasms, and motivations get muddled. Sometimes these things will kill whatever spark the idea possesses—at least, for a while.

But sometimes surprise works in your favor. Sometimes you can fix problems before they start. Sometimes you can start with nothing but a desire to make something beautiful, with materials that look like a hot mess … and something even better than you'd hoped appears in your hands.