Thanks to the primal human desire for self-adornment, jewelry is one of the oldest forms of decorative arts. And beads are among the earliest baubles in the beauty arsenal. A necklace found in northern Iraq dating from 5000 BCE includes beads of obsidian, a glassy volcanic rock.
Maggie Meister’s dazzling necklaces, bracelets, cuffs, and collars shake the dust from this storied past. Her classic jewelry, recently seen at the Washington Craft Show, weaves glass and stone beads in patterns that dig into global design origins. Some of her pieces take sculptural form, like earrings based on the rounded tiers of lanterns in a Turkish church. Others incorporate colorful semi-precious and precious stones, pearls and scarabs, embedded or hanging from embellished works of the beader’s art.
Meister creates these resonant designs in the light-filled sun porch of her Norfolk, Virginia, home. But the historic turn to her work, and her jewelry-making career in general, almost didn’t happen.
Back in 1992, Meister was a full-time mom with no background in art. But after admiring a pair of earrings worn by her son’s kindergarten teacher, she set out to learn the craft. Teaching herself many seed-bead techniques, she also took classes and worked at bead stores in San Diego and Seattle, where the family followed her husband’s assignments with Navy Exchange retail stores.
After six years honing her skills, Meister became frustrated by the sense of not having found a style of her own. “I was about to give up beading,” she remembers, when her husband was transferred to Naples, Italy.
After moving with their two boys, her first response was culture shock. “Naples was dirty and overcrowded. It reminded me of living in the Bronx in the 1970s,” she recalls. “I had read Under the Tuscan Sun, and expected I would live in a beautiful villa and take up painting.”
Two months later her outlook changed. She took a tour of the Naples National Archaeological Museum with a guide gifted in presenting history who, she says, “made me really see the city in a new way. Its antiquity captured me. There are so many layers and levels.”
She returned often to the museum, studying archaeological finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum. One bracelet attracted her special attention. “Its little half-globes of granulated gold were connected to make this beautiful bracelet. I stared at it for one hour,” she clearly remembers. “Then I went home and began playing with different size beads to get a very similar effect.”
The bracelet was from Italy’s Etruscan era, which flourished in the sixth and seventh centuries BCE. Its artisans perfected the technique of granulation, in which minute gold spheres are soldered like droplets onto a metal background, typically gold. “Etruscan jewelry is spectacular and was very well known in ancient times,” Meister observes.
Other ancient objects intrigued her.“I loved the mosaics of colored tiles and immediately thought about how they could be translated into beads.” Those design motifs were later adapted in the bold black-and-white shield of her Pelta Necklace, and Solomon’s Knot Bracelet, based on the interlocking pattern of tile borders. Meister’s inspirations know no boundaries. An ancient Indian amulet inspired her exotic Laksmi Pendant with its central stone drop. The puzzle pattern on one of her brooches comes from a Moroccan tile design.
After five years in Naples, Meister returned to the States, but the bead-artist’s heart remained in the land of antiquities. In her studio today, mementos from the journey surround her. Framed beaded fringe from Murano, the glass-blowing center, hangs on the walls, as do mosaic tile fragments and photos of Italian scenes. As Meister describes them, they are “things that when I look up I feel that I’m back there.”
Studied as her designs appear to be, they rarely begin with a sketch or template. She simply starts weaving with waxed nylon cording and a small beading needle in one of four sizes. Small mounds of beads sit ready for use in a tray attached to her work chair.
Meister begins assembling the small seed beads, starting flat and gradually building up small sections. To anchor focal-point pearls or stones in a beaded casing, she starts with rows of flat, circular stitches. The needle then passes through the pearl’s hole, moving back and forth through the beads to form a secure cup. Called bezels, these small components are later stitched together with other beaded sections to complete the designs.
Depending on a piece’s complexity, Meister may use one or several beading techniques: peyote, a versatile stitch popular in ancient Egyptian and Native American beadwork; laddered brick stitch; right-angle weave; and herringbone stitch, as well as a few others. Construction typically takes from one day for the simplest earrings to 60 hours for her most complicated necklaces. The bead artist favors cylindrical-shaped beads for extra texture and the metallic sheen of beads plated in 24-karat gold or sterling silver. For color contrast, she selects emerald, garnet, turquoise, lapis, and carnelian beads, or “almost anything with a hole in it, even if it’s a round shape,” she says. Meister also prefers stones in a raw, unpolished form for an ancient look. And she recently began incorporating vintage beads from her own collection. These very tiny glass beads were used originally on embroidered fabric and in beaded purses.
Teaching beadwork has taken Meister across the U.S and into Germany and Turkey. She also leads tours to Italy with small groups of beaders or artists. “I can’t stay away,” she says.
The years spent in Italy, Meister relates wistfully, “changed our lives.” She explains their ongoing impact on her art: “I tried to capture the essence of the jewelry and mosaic motifs by ancient Roman and Etruscan craftspeople. What I’m doing is creating a memory for me.”
Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. For more information, on the artist, visit maggiemeister.com.