Using Natural Materials in Beading & Jewelry Making
We humans have been adorning ourselves for thousands of years with beadwork and other jewelry. It’s only natural that we would reach for the beautiful things around us to create our own jewelry. Whether that’s the bone and shell embellishments our earliest ancestors used or the myriad stones that are available to us today, our world offers an amazing array of natural materials to make beautiful jewelry.
ABOVE: I Stand With Randy featuring found wood. Photo: Casey Sheppard.
But natural materials aren’t just lovely to look at. They also bring intriguing stories and symbolism into our jewelry designs. For example, each time you use a shell, you’re invoking the power of the ocean. Wood provides a grounding energy. And, stones have historically been associated with a variety of attributes that are fun to discover and share. These can be powerful sales tools when you include this information on signage or packaging inserts when selling your jewelry.
Natural materials also lend themselves to interesting creative possibilities. Porous materials such as lava stone, wood, and leather provide the perfect way to add aromatics to your jewelry. Just add a few drops of essential oil for an aromatherapy effect.
With natural materials, it is very common for the holes to be abrasive inside. Abrasion can damage your beading wire or thread, so it’s important to use a bead reamer to smooth the inside of the holes. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Stone is one of the oldest and most widely used components in jewelry making. It’s amazing that a rough rock can come out of the Earth and be transformed into a gorgeous wearable bead, pendant, or cabochon. Stones that resemble their natural state, such as slices and nuggets, are very on-trend right now. Boho Serenity by Michelle McEnroe incorporates both stone beads and a floral motif.
Most people are familiar with their birthstone, but many folks don’t realize that there are also attributes associated with stones. These qualities are like background stories for stones and lend specific significance to your jewelry designs. For example, turquoise has historically been used for balance, and amethyst is used to relieve stress. It’s no wonder that we love to be surrounded by our beads!
One of the most up-and-coming natural materials in recent years, there are now a huge variety of ways to incorporate leather into your designs beyond the traditional cording. Tassels, die-cut leather, braided cord, and even leather-covered beads add a tactile effect to jewelry designs.
Leather is complementary to so many other natural materials: Thick leather cord plays well with large-hole stone beads, wood or shell pendants look perfect on thin leather cord, and leather pieces can be used to create feathers, flowers, and other motifs inspired by nature.
If natural leather isn’t your thing, you can find many alternatives that will allow you to achieve similar looks. Search for “vegan leather” or “faux leather” jewelry supplies for options. Cork is also a nice, natural alternative for leather. It has a warm, worn-in look and can by dyed if you’re looking for more color.
Wooden beads, pendants, and other jewelry-making elements are experiencing a resurgence right now. They look beautiful with turquoise, pyrite, and other semiprecious stones. Wood has a grounding quality but it’s lightweight, which makes it great for earrings and stacking bracelets. See Spiraled by Nature by Sandra Lupo for a unique way to incorporate wood into a design.
Some wooden components, such as sandalwood, have scents of their own. But if you’re using unsealed wooden beads, you can add essential oils to make your own aromatherapy jewelry. Or you could dye them, paint them, or transform them in numerous other ways using your favorite art supplies.
Shells were used in some of the earliest adornments, and they still make beautiful jewelry components. Whether they’re natural shells pulled from the waves or shell-inspired motifs, shells remind us of the ocean and the restorative power of the sea. Many types of shells have their own associated stories and meanings, such as abalone, which is known as a protective shell. Deb Floros uses abalone in her design, The Ocean is Beckoning, found in February/March Beadworkmagazine.
The great thing about many shells is that they already have holes for stringing. But if you want to drill your own shells, you’ll need to use a drill press or a flexible shaft. Use a diamond-tip drill bit and drill the hole under water. Place a barrier such as a sponge under the shell so the drill bit makes a clean hole and doesn’t puncture your water bowl. Wear safety glasses and a mask.
Don’t underestimate the possibilities of flora in your jewelry. Resin-encased flowers, miniature terrariums, and even live succulents glued into bezels make eye-catching, trendy jewelry. Or you can incorporate beads, charms, and pendants with floral motifs. Dandelion Dreams by Debbie Blair makes use of a lovely floral motif in her project in February/March Beadwork magazine.
Flowers and plants have all kinds of meanings. For example, ferns represent sincerity, lotuses indicate new beginnings, and leaves symbolize growth. These unspoken sentiments add meaning to your jewelry designs, whether you’re making it for yourself, for gifts, or for sale.
As you delve into the world of natural materials, think about how you can combine the things you know with things that are outside your beading box. Taking a walk clears the mind and may also yield interesting natural elements to incorporate into your jewelry designs. Take a cue from Anne Perry and how she incorporates feathers in her Hotsy Totsy necklace.
Jewelry artist Casey Sheppard says, “Upon construction of a piece, I love using string or a needle and thread to attach fragile items such as pinecones or moss. With bigger pieces of wood, I use a drill bit and string with cord or rope. Play with what you have laying around. Try combining contrasting materials. Gold leaf and spray paint are a fun way to add color or vibrancy to natural materials. Glue some rhinestone or crystals. Add a chain. There is no right or wrong.”
Our ancestors made jewelry and adornments from whatever they could find in their environments. We are fortunate to be able to combine some of those very same eye-catching elements with their beautiful, modern cousins. The stories behind natural materials make them even more intriguing.
— Katie Hacker
Interim Managing Editor, Beadwork
Host of Beads, Baubles & Jewels on PBS. Watch anytime with the entire series available in the Interweave store.
Turn to these resources for more inspiring ways to use natural materials in your next jewelry design.