The most coveted gemstones get their start deep under the ground but end up sparkling under a counter of glass. You can interrupt that journey midstream and have them for your own, buying stone beads and making the jewelry yourself. Wearing these beauties, a world away from whence they came, is like holding secrets of the earth next to your skin. As the popularity of beading has grown in recent years, sources of good-quality beads have proliferated. A dazzling array of semiprecious and precious stones drilled with holes can be found at bead stores across the country and can be purchased from sources online. There's no need to settle for glass or synthetic materials when a string of your favorite gem, be it the much-adored ruby or the lesser-known labradorite, which has a smoky, metallic hue, can easily, and often inexpensively, be yours. Choosing stones, pondering designs, and trying out the basic tools and techniques can be a rich and heady experience.
There's also the tactile satisfaction of working with something that might once have been embedded below the surface of the earth. Most stones crystallize as a result of the natural agitation of the planet, be it the flow of volcanic magma, the endless shifting of water currents, or the commotion of gases. Deposits are hidden in far-flung places: opal mines in Australia, rocks containing citrine in Brazil, deposits of peridot in the southwestern United States.
In general, the best stones -- those with the finest color and fewest flaws -- are turned into jewelry with settings, says Ravi K. Lashkery, the owner of Gemorex, a gem and bead store in New York City. Stones used as strung beads tend to have more impurities, but Hannah Milman, Martha Stewart Living editorial director of crafts, considers that part of their charm: "The imperfections are so organic, and you can see the natural beauty of the stone." She suggests holding gems near your face or against your wrist -- depending upon how you intend to use them -- to see what color suits you best. Keep in mind that some stones are dyed to enhance their hue; the dye can rub off on clothes and will mask the stones' intrinsic loveliness -- at the store ask to be sure the stones are natural.
Beads are often sold in strands. Prices, from $5 for a string of turquoise beads to $200 for emeralds, depend upon several factors: the number of beads per strand; their size, which ranges from two to 25 millimeters in diameter; as well as the quality, determined by color and number of impurities, known as inclusions. You'll also choose according to shape, such as round, oval, square, or teardrop, and the stones' cut, which refers to the facets.
To transform beads into adornments -- necklaces, bracelets, and earrings -- you'll send delicate wire through their holes, twisting and looping it so that each stone can be joined to the next. Or you can string beads on silk cord, which itself can become a design element. After you've gathered the tools and supplies, practice with inexpensive basemetal wire, rather than silver or gold; then use the techniques here to create your own looks. The process is a meditative one. It doesn't require great skill, but it does call for patience and practice. And you'll discover that even once you become familiar with stones, they remain enchantingly mysterious.
Tools and Materials