Aug 19, 2008

Beads with a Past: An Interview with EurekaEureka

I’m a huge fan of gemstones and rocks, so I was fascinated to discover EurekaEureka, the Etsy shop run by Debby Arem. Browsing through her shop is like taking a trip around the world, with vintage beads from places like West Germany, China, and Czechoslovakia. I asked Debby to explain to us how she got into the business of selling such unusual vintage gemstones and beads.

I probably would never have become a jewelry designer if it hadn’t met my husband, Joel! While I do have a degree in Fine Arts, my area of concentration was silk screen printing. I never took a jewelry making course while in college.
But when I met Joel, he had been a colored stone wholesale dealer for 30+ years, so he was already immersed in the field of gems and jewelry. He had also written a number of books on the subject (seven as of now, including the Color Encyclopedia of Gemstones, by Joel E. Arem, PhD, FGA).
Although I loved silkscreening, the inks available in the 1970s were oil based and toxic. One day I was working in my studio (which I thought was adequately ventilated) and got the headache of all headaches; every vertebra in my spine ached.
That was it. I put my inks away and said no more! Joel at the time had a number of customers who, in addition to buying colored stones, were looking for high-end beaded jewelry. I took a course in bead knotting (something that isn’t done much anymore, since most people just string their beads on wire and crimp them), and I found that, not only did I love it, but I had a knack for combining beads in an unusual and eye-catching way. I soon realized though that my “palette” was rather limited and I wanted more unusual beads. Joel was already traveling to Asia for business, so I started tagging along as we searched out sources for amazing beads (many of them carved) that weren’t being sold in the United States.
I picture you in a bazaar someplace exotic, looking over trays of stones. Could you describe one of your most interesting encounters?
We traveled to Pakistan as the guests of the son of the Pakistani ambassador to the United States. Through our guide and friend, we found ourselves in Peshawar, which is right up by the Khyber Pass near Afghanistan! I’ve included a picture of myself and our friend in front of one of the little “hole in the wall” shops, where I found a number of handmade brass and pewter beads. What we still joke about is that here we were, in one of the most remote places in the world (in a village that few Western women had been to), yet the little shop we wandered into had pictures of the store owner standing next to David Niven and Jackie Onassis!
You’ve had an extensive career as a designer of jewelry that’s been sold in places such as the Smithsonian, the Sackler Gallery, and Saks. Where can we find your creations today?
Today I mostly sell my work on my own website, although I’m in the process of redoing this site. And of course I sell on Etsy in both DebbyAremDesigns and EurekaEureka. I’m always available as well to do custom work for people, which I still love.
Tell us a little more about your inventory at EurekaEureka. What types of stones and beads do you carry? What’s the rarest thing you’ve ever sold in your shop? The most valuable?
My immediate response is, “You name it, we have it!” In our travels, we bought stone beads of just about any kind you can imagine – black onyx, rose quartz, malachite, lapis lazuli, jaspers of all types, tigereye in different colors, carnelian, sodalite . . . the list goes on and on. We were able to import coral and ivory, which of course you can’t do these days. We bought pearls, cloisonné, handmade porcelain beads, Japanese tensha beads, metal beads of all sorts, and West German glass beads.
I think what set me apart from other designers at the time was my incredible collection of carved stone beads, which I am now selling in my Etsy shop. Nobody had such a huge variety of beads to work with, then or now.
The most valuable pieces we ever sold were gem-quality 30 mm large intricately carved lapis beads from Afghanistan. This kind of material is sold by the carat, not just the millimeter size. We still have a few of those amazing beads. We also purchased intricately carved, gem-clean aquamarine beads, which sold by the carat as well.
Do you have a favorite? And has your taste been shaped by your husband’s knowledge?
My personal favorites are the vintage West German glass that I bought so many years ago, and that we are selling now. I’ve always had a thing for colored glass (I even have a collection of carnival glass tumblers), so I was always hunting for unusual colored glass beads. And if I could find glass in an unusual shape, that was even better, since I like to incorporate different shaped beads and different sizes of round beads to make my pieces true “wearable art,” not jewelry.
I wouldn’t say that my taste has been shaped by Joel’s knowledge, but certainly he’s helped me learn to differentiate between a poorly cut bead and a bead that is top top quality. With Joel educating me, I was able to purchase beads worthy of the Smithsonian museum shops and catalogs.
Many of the items you sell are no longer available anywhere else. Why is that? What’s changed in the world?
Some things (such as ivory) have become sensitive politically because of animal rights and environmental activism, which of course we completely support as we are both huge animal lovers and volunteer with two rescue groups. The CITES Treaty banned ivory sales to stop the senseless killing of elephants, so ivory beads are not available in the United States except for pre-1989 stocks, which are now mostly depleted. Coral has become rare and valuable as a result of water pollution and is no longer being harvested or imported. The list goes on.
The bead market in the 1980s focused on natural stones, rare and valuable components, unusual shapes, good designs, and high-quality workmanship. Today’s market is driven by low price points, inexpensive components, average workmanship (no knotting!), and tumbled shapes (rather than expensive, hand-cut geometrics). Factories in Asia stopped producing the higher quality components a long time ago because the market simply stopped demanding them. That’s why our vintage inventory of components is so unusual and pretty much impossible to replace.
How do you choose what to sell in your shop? That is, what makes a good bead?
First, in terms of a round stone bead, you want it to be perfectly round! Many beads today are cut in India, not Asia, because of labor costs. And these beads are not of the caliber, in terms of roundness and polish, of the beads that we purchased in the late 1970s through the 1980s. You also want to look for an even polish and to make sure the hole is drilled all the way through and the inside of the hole is smooth and not jagged or it will cut your cord if you are stringing on silk.
In my shop, I try to vary what I list so that there’s something for everyone. I have top-end pieces like a carved ivory bead for $30, and I have vintage resin beads from the 1950s that are only a couple of dollars. Sometimes I list items by color combinations, or I list a few different vintage Chinese cloisonné pieces at the same time. I try to keep my shop interesting so that my customers check often to see what’s “new” in the “old.”
I had a peek in your other shop, DebbyAremDesigns, and just love the recycled jewelry you offer there. Do you see any connection between your recycled creations and your vintage shop?
In my Three Ring Circuits line, all the items—both decorative and functional—are made from recycled circuit boards. When I first branched out and started 3RC, I didn’t see a connection with the beads I was using in my “Beadles” line that I sold to museum shops. But nowadays “recycling” vintage beads and recycling discarded circuit boards is pretty much the same thing! There’s a definite crossover between my two lines, including using vintage jewelry glass cabochons in my Three Ring Circuits line, particularly the clocks, and Beadles necklaces that have components made from recycled circuit boards. This picture, for example, shows a custom piece I designed last year using recycled circuit boards along with beads made of coral, ivory, turquoise, and amethyst, plus vintage West German turquoise crackle beads.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
I suppose simply that people can be sure that, when they buy from EurekaEureka, they are indeed getting what I say they are. I’m careful to accurately describe the beads and where they were purchased, along with an interesting story if there is one. With Joel’s expertise in the field, I’m comforted to know that when I’m not sure if a bead is made from glass or resin, he can look at it under a microscope, see a “bubble” or other identifying characteristic, and be certain that what I’m selling really is what it is represented to be. And when I say that a particular bead is of gem quality or grade A material, it is properly labeled because of Joel’s expertise in the field.
Thanks, Debby, for sharing your story. Be sure to check out her vintage shop, EurekaEureka, and if you mention the word “Peshawar,” you’ll get free shipping on any order over $25 from now through September 1, 2008 (one order per customer).


sue said...

Fascinating read! Thank you!

Katie said...

I love Debby's shop and her jewelry! Great interview!

Softflexgirl said...

So is just amazing how beads can connect so many people from so many different walks of life.

Sara Hardin

Katie said...

Amazing beads! I love the "worldliness" of it all. Debby rocks. :)

Debby said...

Thanks everyone for the nice comments about my shop and this blog interview.I had a great time doing it because of the wonderful insightful questions asked by Susan!I do always think about how a handful of beads can connect so many of us from all over the world - it never ceases to amaze me ! Debby