Turkmeni Beadmaking

Many readers might already know that my PhD research is focusing on a study of Early Historic (500 BC-500 AD) trade networks in Cambodia through a study of stone and glass beads.   Most of these beads are coming from South Asia and then getting traded across Southeast Asia.  India has a really long tradition of making stone beads, dating back thousands of years and my advisor, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, is an expert on South Asian beadmaking techniques, especially those dating to the Indus Valley civilization.    For the past few months Dr. Kenoyer has been hosting an Afghani beadmaker by the name of Abdul Momin. (There is a nice article about Abdul Momin, his father, and beadmaking here) .  This weekend, Abdul Momin was giving a demonstration of his beadmaking techniques at a local bead store- Indus Beads– and I stopped by to check it out. The techniques he is using to make beads are quite similar (minus some of the modern technology) that people may have used to make beads in the past.  After the jump I’ll walk you through the steps of making a stone bead.


Above: Abdul Momin displays finished beads for sale.

Abdul Momin uses a wide variety of materials to make beads including carnelian, lapis, and serpentine.  He’ll often start with a rectangular shaped piece of stone which he then puts in a grip to drill. You can shape a bead before drilling too, but he said it is harder for it to stay in place in the grip.

Below: A variety of finished and unfinished beads.



Above you can see Abdul Momin’s bead drilling set-up.  He’s got a wooden grip where he puts the bead rough-out.  In front of that is a small pot filled with water.  The pot has a small hole and a wooden stick is inserted so that water slowly drips down the stick onto the bead surface, this is to facilitate drilling.  There’s a small bowl underneath to catch the drips of water.  Abdul is drilling the bead using  a bow drill.

The drills themselves have diamond tips which makes drilling holes in beads really fast.  Abdul said he could drill a long bead, like those pictured above, in about 40 minutes.   The use of diamonds in beadmaking dates to about 600 BC in India.  Indian beadmakers have traditionally used a double diamond tipped drill, whereas beadmakers from Central Asia used a drill with only a single diamond at the tip.  Abdul Momin said that he thought using a single diamond drill was faster.


Abdul Momin uses drills with different sized diamond tips to make larger or smaller holes.   Below are the diamonds he uses to drill the beads.


Abdul Momin also makes these amazingly tiny little microbeads out of stone that are quite labor intensive.


Above: In the background you can see these beautiful lapis microbeads already strung on blue thread.  In the foreground are carnelian and serpentine chips, waiting to be made into microbeads.

First Abdul Momin starts with  a tiny stone chip that he drills in a little metal plate of water using a bow drill (with a diamond tip of course!).  For these beads he uses his smallest diamonds.


Below: The drill was moving so fast it was hard to get a clear shot!


After the little pieces are drilled he then uses tiny handheld cutters (they looked like  wire cutters to me) to shape these chips into a general roundish shape. He then needs to string them and then he uses an electric sander to shape and polish the beads into a nice spherical shape.


Some of his beads had a beautiful shiny polish, which came from an electric buffer that he uses.  In the past these final steps (grinding, polishing) would’ve been much more labor intensive and taken a lot longer because they would have been done by hand.   Before the invention of diamond drills, beadmakers used other types of stone to drill beads, and it may have taken hours or even days to drill a single bead.   My husband was noting how long it takes to make a single bead.  It does take a long time! But in the past it took even longer.

9 responses to “Turkmeni Beadmaking

  1. Fascinating. I would have loved to have seen it!

  2. Interesting! Do you mind if I put a link to this on my website?

  3. This wasn’t very clear in the post, but Abdul is Turkmeni ethnically but from Afghanistan.

  4. so interesting, in cambodia, our ancestors left us many kinds of antiquities stones.

  5. Oh, Alison! This is the most amazing thing….each of his beads, though new, have the breezes of history wafting over them; I imagine thousands of beadmakers watching over his shoulder from centuries ago. How exciting! Thank you for this!

  6. hey thanks for posting this Alison, very interesting. btw I tried to call you last week when I was in PP but did not get through. I also SMSed. did you change your number? Would be nice to meet again.

  7. Your advisor is Dr. Kenoyen! Cool! I went to his conference last year in London and I thought he was quite brilliant!

    Your work with beads sounds very interesting. I really like this type of research cause it lets you grasp the essence of trade routes. 🙂 The ethnoarchaeology approach is possibly one of my favourite, since you get to experience your research theme in a very lively way! 🙂

  8. Hi Alison,
    I saw your comment on my blog and thought I would reciprocate. I’m writing my PhD on Cambodia and trade too, but within the modern context. Basically I’m writing about how development agencies try to construct or reconstruct new and existing commodity chains in the name of assisting people to trade their way out of poverty. My thesis title is “Aiding Trade: Case Studies in Agricultural Value Chain Development in Cambodia”. On a theoretical level I’m enrolling debates about gifts versus commodities. Yes that old chestnut. I’m interested in your work as in my background chapter I write about Cambodian history being dominated between an oscillation between two systems of wealth accumulation: tribute (Angkor) and trade (Phnom Penh region). This fits with my gift and commodity carry on. Anyway, I’d love to read some of your writing regarding ancient trade networks as it would definitely help flesh out my background chapter. Perhaps we can discuss this via email?

  9. @Maytel: There is a mutual friend of Alison and I who just finished his masters at UHawaii on Angkorian political economy– also tribute and trade. His stuff might be worth looking at too. If you are interested, pm one of us for his email and details.