What are Blue Russian Trade Beads?

Graduated strand of Blue Russian Trade Beads

Blue Russian Trade Beads

 

More interest about one of my favorite subjects, Trade Beads, is always a treat for me.  I’ve received quite a few questions about Trade Beads in the last few months and have determined that we really need a blog post about them on Walker Goldsmiths not just on Active Artists .

Blue Russians are the beads that have raised the most questions lately. That is the name given to the beautiful Cobalt Blue, hand faceted, tubular glass trade beads originally traded by the Russians to the Alaska Natives in exchange for Sea Otter pelts or anything else they might want. The beads were a desirable form of currency. Kind of like the Wampum of the far north. They range in size from approximately 10mm down to 5mm in length and some are slim and some are chunky. The larger the size of the bead the greater the value.

In this picture you can see the round Czech glass beads spaced between the faceted Blue Russians.  I do this to protect the antique glass. These Blue Russians are quite possibly over 300 years old, and since they are tubular shaped when the necklace bends the potential for chipping is a reality.

“We accept now that the blue trade beads probably originated in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) and first made their appearance in Russian America in the late 1700’s.  The only mystery is how the Russians obtained them.  The Bohemians sent wagon trains of their glassware all over Europe including Russia.  The Russian American Fur Company may have bought the beads from such a train and shipped them to the colony.  There is also a story of them being stocked in the European storehouses in Canton, China and shipped to the Russian colony from there.  The beads may also have been obtained from the Hudson’s Bay Co.  There is evidence that they had them to trade in Canada and the Great Lakes region.  John Jacob Astor, of the American Fur Co. reputedly sold beads to the Russians.  Whatever the route, trade beads arrived in the Pacific Northwest in considerable quantity.”
(E. Harris)

Blue Russian Trade Beads are still very desirable and collected all over the world. In fact, they are getting very hard to find,  so if you see any at an antique shop or maybe even if you’re lucky at an estate sale, snatch them up immediately! Then get a hold of Janet Walker at Walker Goldsmiths and we can enjoy them together and I can help you decide how best to use them.

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46 Responses to “What are Blue Russian Trade Beads?”

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  1. Matthew Donovan says:

    I recently received two cobalt blue Russian trade beads about 1″ in diameter each. I was wondering the value on these items?

  2. Janet Walker says:

    Hi Matthew, Wonderful to talk with you about your “Blue Russian” beads. Sounds to me like you’ve got a treasure for sure! Some questions need to be answered before a true value can be placed on your beads. Are they truly old? Are they dark cobalt? Light blue glass core with darker glass on top or solidly dark cobalt? Is the hole large or small? Are they obviously hand faceted? Meaning that the facets differ one from another and don’t look like they were cast faceted glass with NO seam lines from a mold. Are they chipped much from wear? Are they shiny or frosted from wear? If these beads are in good shape, dark blue, few wear chips and actually individually hand made they are of more value. If you have a provenance they can be worth much more. If they are the real deal they’re at least 200+ years old. How’d you get two beads and can you email me pictures to [email protected] ? Russians this large are rare! I’d love to see them:)

  3. Brenda Scott says:

    Hello, I also have a bunch of Russian Trade beads. I would like to know the value of them as well, there are a variety of them, some are on the original grass twine and a few on what looks like old silver chain link with handmade hook clasp. There are some that are very colorful and with the chevron print! Reading this got me very excited 🙂 I will send pictures when I get some taken! thank you

  4. debbi says:

    I have a bracelet made of what appears to be 19 hand-made, soft blue beads, but I don’t know what kind of stone was used. (Some have said soapstone, but I don’t think so.) The beads are quite primitive looking and what intrigues me is that they are strung with human grey hair! I was told by the person who gave it to me that they are Russian trading beads. I’d love to get some information on how old these could be and if they are worth anything.

  5. Janet Walker says:

    Yes, these sweet blue Russians really got around! Here’s more on that very fact…http://activeartist.net/russian-blue-trade-beads-history/

  6. Sarah Sutherland says:

    I work at Historic Locust Grove (circa 1790) and, as the gardener, I often find things as I work. Yesterday I found a small Russian trade bead near a hillside cabin foundation and am wondering how one would have found its way to Kentucky. Native Americans? William Clark? (he visited his sister, who lived here) Enslaved population?

  7. gary says:

    hi there i was wondering if i could send janet a picture of beads to look at thanks gary

    • Janet Walker says:

      Hi Gary, Yes, received your photo of the beautiful trade beads! I’ll get to you about what they are as soon as I get a couple of custom ring jobs finished…Janet

      • Ron. says:

        Hi Janet,
        Have large collection Hudsons bay, faceted,blue cobalt beads etc. collected from my early days commercial fishing the pacific nw coast. All without question authentic & with exact locations. Sizes vary from 5/8″ to 3/16″ in dia. & in extremely good condition. Would enjoy chatting with you. Could make & send pictures.

        Ron.

  8. Rebekah Donohue says:

    Hello;
    I’ve been doing some intense research lately and according to Lois Dublin’s ‘The History Of Beads’, Russian blues were made in Venice then shipped to China by English trading companies, then the Chinese traded to Russians who then brought them to the Northwest Coast. Her other theory is that these beads came directly from the makers in Venice to the Northwest Coast. (Please reference page 274 at the bottom). This is why I am doing desperate research. Its all very confusing, yes? I can’t seem to get a straight answer from anywhere as to what a particular type of bead is really worth as it is very subjective. It depends on it’s age, condition, what the market will bear, etc. We have no blue book or definitive guide on pricing that I can find. Another can of worms is how to know if a bead is really old or if its been faked. There are really exceptional fakes out there, how can you tell? Any advice would be very helpful and appreciated!

    Rebekah

    • Janet Walker says:

      Hi Rebekah, Researching Trade Beads is a HUGE job!! Check out the bottom of Pg.274 and you’ll see that Lois Dublin says, “Alternatively, the beads were made in Venice or Bohemia (Jabloneec, Czech), shipped to Hong Kong by English trading companies, and traded to Russians who brought them to the Northwest coast; or they may have come directly from Europe, brought by English merchants to the Hudson’s Bay Company Posts in Canada” I’ve done extensive research on Russian Blues and have another article on activeartist.net titled Russian Blue Trade Bead history http://activeartist.net/russian-blue-trade-beads-history/ And, yes, it’s all very confusing because they came from so many different directions with so many different traders of different nationalities. And the politics was a huge issue! Who would trade with who and who wouldn’t! The late Peter Francis says that the Russians hardly handled these beads and the proof of that statement is that they were rarely found on early Russian contact sites. Your question about not getting a “straight answer” cracks me up too because there is NO straight answer. It does depend on color, size, age, condition, what the market will bear and of course there’s the antique aspect of Provenance. Who owned them and who got them from who where!! 🙂 And , yes, No Blue Book!! The only way of knowing if a bead is really old is experience, I’m’ sorry, but it really seems to be that way. Experience and exposure will teach you about size and shape and core colors and individual faceting and about the average going price. Researching how the Blue Russians are made can help you know that every stinkin’ bead is an individual!! There are truly no two alike! One of the hardest jobs I do is to choose two closely matching beads for a pair of earrings!!! Of course, FYI, that’s easy if you’re using fake blue russians… The East Indian Fakes are pretty tricky and it’s best to see a strand and you’ll see the pattern of at best 5 beads over and over again. The best thing I can tell you about Blue Russian Fakes is that they have no “soul”, really! Hold a real antique strand of dark Cobalt Russian Blues in your hands and you’ll know what I’m talkin’ about! I love the adventure of Trade Beads!!!

  9. Susan Dodds says:

    Hi Janet,
    I too have a lot of the blue beads…I grew up on Hood Canal, a branch of Puget Sound, in Washington, between what is now Potlatch State Park and the little town of Hoodsport. Mainly in the 1950s and 60s we used to dig around in the undeveloped areas near our house and would occasionally find the rich blue faceted beads…I think I have about 20 of them, also one green and one red. They are worn and obviously old, but I know nothing else about them. There are many other round dark blue beads, but those do not look old, they’re still shiny…plus I have a few hundredvery small white, red and green opaque beads that my mom (who is 90) says are somewhat valuable but I don’t know where they’re from. So my question is how do I get these appraised? Is there a market for any of them? I can send pictures if you will give me your email address. Thank you! Susan Dodds

  10. Janet Walker says:

    Hi Ren, Send me a picture, please! If these are authentic they ARE worth the moola! Red is very rare, especially of that size.

    • Ren Settle says:

      Bit the bullet, bought the red beads, emailed photos to you, but am not sure you received them. Please let me know by email. Thanks, Ren

  11. Kathy Walker says:

    Hi Janet, I bought some Russian Blue beads from Dables African Bead Meusum in Detroit. And you were so right in your comment about when you hold them in your hands you can feel their energy. As soon as I touched them I knew I had to have them. There are many color and size/shape variations, several greenish ones and one that is purplish but mostly shades of cobalt blue. Approximately 4-6 mm in size on a single strand consisting of 116 beads. Would send photo but don’t see that option on this site. Wondering what your opinion of my find is?
    Sincerely Kathy

  12. beadiste says:

    Hi Janet –

    Yesterday I did a blog post consolidating information on these beads, which perhaps you and your readers will find informative.

    http://www.beadiste.com/2015/07/beads-traded-for-slaves-vs-pacific.html

    Best,
    Chris

  13. Liz Maslin says:

    Looks like you’ve got a lot of good info on the Russian Blues. I have a lot of Russian Blues in a variety of colors. Most are the cobalt blue, some midnight blue, quite a few opalescent “blues”, a few green and even fewer amber colors. All are hand-faceted. They came from a dig at my parents place on the far outskirts of Placerville, CA where after a rain she notice beads popping up out of the ground. From what we learned, the dig was a place where the local Maidu tribes held an anniversary ceremony in which worldly goods were thrown into a fire to honor important happenings, deaths, births during the year. A fair number of the beads are crazed from the fire and are extremely delicate. There are also some actual Indian-made clamshell beads which still bear soot from the fires. I also have a number of the green-heart cornaline (sp?) beads in different sizes. The fire must have been pretty hot since I have some bead masses which are all melted together. My sister dug them up in 1968-69. I can say with a definite certainty that these beads are all at least 100-120 years old since that dates to the time when the property was originally settled.

    I’m trying to find out about the pink/red round faceted beads approximately .5mm from this group. Probably made in Czechoslovakia as well but have been experiencing difficulty in locating where these were actually made. Another group of beads I have a very small size 11 turquoise glass seed beads. Will send some pix in the next couple of days.

    Thanks in advance for your assistance!

    Liz Masllin

  14. Betty Reed says:

    Hi Janet, my name is Betty I have a string of blue glass beads I was given by a neighbor his wife had passed he gave me a box with some antique jewelry there was a note attached on the blue beads these were given to here mother and then given to her. Her mother said they were very old. I would like to know what kind of beads they are ?

  15. Liz says:

    Hi Janet, it’s Liz and I know you guys are probably xtremely busy with the Xmas season but I sent you updated info/pix on my trade beads but wasn’t sure you got it. My final trade bead collection includes more green blue russians, some hollow blown glass (probably Venetian) beads, some wound beads, more regular blues, more midnight blues (my name for them as they are a much darker blue), more opalescent blues, more faceted cherries (my name for them), some blue padre beads, more cornalines in different sizes, and more seed beads–white, aqua, green, black, taupe/gray, and lots of melted/broken bead shards. Loved your videos! Really really well done! Have a great holiday! Liz

  16. Michael says:

    Are Russian Blues still made today or are they all antiques?

    • Janet Walker says:

      Hi Michael,

      Faux Russian Blues are still made today in China and India. They do a darn good job too, often hard to tell when one doesn’t know what they’re looking at. Usually they take at least 5 different beads and mold them to cast cobalt glass into. Then randomly pick from the collection of different cast beads to string up, often abusing/aging them a bit to look old. Pretty tricky they are!!! 🙂 Gotta’ know what you’re lookin’ at!

  17. Mary says:

    Hello Janet.

    I have this set of beads that were left in my mothers estate. I know nothing of them and found them in a box in the attic. They came with a note that explains they are indian trading beads. Could you shine some light on this beads?

    I can attach an email with photos if you would that would be alright with you.

    Thank you for your site. Very interesting.

    Best Regards,

    Mary

  18. Loralee nikal says:

    Hello

    I have two of the old blue Russian trade beads that we found on the beach. We live just of the coast of prince rupert BC. I am just wondering what these are worth.

  19. Cheryl Klaass says:

    Janet,

    My mom recently passed away and one of the things that she left me was a beaded necklace. She lived in Alaska for a few years and purchased it there. I liked your website where you help people know more about their necklaces. I would love to know if you could tell the current value of this necklace. It is 28″ long. I have a photo of it but don’t see a place to add it to this note.

    Thanks, Cheryl

  20. DezDarius says:

    Hi Matt name is Dez. I am Native American, Navajo artist in jewelry creation making. Lived in the NW for over 25 years. Moved back to AZ 3 years ago. While rummaging through my suppiles I came across 5 beads 15mm by 17mm colbalt blue. Definitely hand cut and dark after cleaning the 5mm diameters hole. Kinda heavy and all in good shape. I like to know how you can rell y he age and worth? DezDarius.

  21. Dave says:

    As an archaeologist specializing in Russian America, I have found that the blue “Russian faceted” beads date from circa 1850s-1870s. They are not found on the earliest Russian sites in Alaska, and but rather during the end of Russian rule and beginning of American rule.

  22. Eduardo says:

    Hello Janet,

    Im a chilean anthropologist working in a museum here in Chile and i have recently found a necklace with three blue faceted beads, now i wondering myself if these might be russian beads. I’d like to have some help via email if it is possible…

    Thanks

  23. Dean C Blood says:

    Greetings Janet,

    I live in Juneau Alaska and have recently obtained some very nice blue trade beads. I was wondering if you still deal with them or know what I should do with them.

    Thanks Dean

  24. Becky Russell says:

    Hello,

    I recently found a necklace in my Jewelry supplies It has several blue cobalt beads square, round and oblong. along with 4 old claws. I am looking for more information or hoping that you could direct me to find more. I tried to post a picture but was unable..My jewelry supplies have been in storage for over 30 years, I have just started to make jewelry after all that time and have been cleaning up all my older pieces.

    • Janet Walker says:

      Hi Becky,
      Don’t quite know how to answer your question. Possibly the best way for you to find what you need is to search the internet for trade bead suppliers. There’s quite a few out there these days that can provide you with what you may be looking for. Good luck and have fun.

  25. Aleksandra says:

    Hello, I wrote to you on e-mail. I have a necklace-blue cobalt beads. Thanks!

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