I wanted to go on a Czech bead tour for more than a year before the dream became a reality. In that time, I had plenty of planning opportunity and it paid off. I found several companies that offered Czech beading tours online. Bananas4Beading, a Czech company operated by a British expat and his Czech wife, seemed the most flexible and best suited for my interests and timeline.
But before I could book, I needed a travelling companion. I called my youngest sister Robin. She and I started designs2c in 2006, when she still lived in the States. Robin came up with the name, designs2c. The name spoke to our work but also to our being two Cathcart sisters. She and her family moved to Edinburgh, Scotland just one year later, but I elected to carry on with the business and the name. It seemed natural to invite her, and she jumped at the opportunity to visit Prague and do the tour with me. We agreed two days in Prague followed by three days on the bead tour in early March. March might seem like a strange time to go on a European holiday. But the airfares from Pittsburgh to Scotland were super inexpensive. Besides, it was off season for my business, and Robin’s kids were in school. Perfect.
I contacted Keith Dudman of Bananas4Beading with the dates we wanted to visit and he quickly got back to confirm them and to learn what kinds of beads we were interested in. He would customize the tour and make appointments with the factories that suited us. None of what follows would have been possible without Keith. He understands the history and process of Czech glass production and loves it. Keith has an extremely good relationship with the range of bead manufacturers. He was the only reason that we could visit such a range of places and learn so much. He was our driver, translator and teacher.
After two lovely days in Prague, Keith collected Robin and me from our hotel early on March 2. Jablonec nad Nisou, our base for the next 2 nights and three days, is an hour and a half drive outside Prague in the Jizera Mountains. It was the perfect day for a drive through the Czech countryside which is a mix of small farms and villages in rolling hills until we approached the Jizera Mountains. Most noteworthy along the way was the massive Skoda car factory that straddled both sides of the highway.
Communities in Northern Bohemia and the Sudetenland first began producing costume jewelry in the 18th century and by the 19th century the region was well known for its glass and bead industries, that continue today. As we entered the area immediately around Jablonec he pointed out the distinctive beading houses that dotted the countryside. (More on this part of our trip in my next blog about the bead making process. Several of the shops we visited are attached to factories and we were allowed to visit and film their production.)
The drive served as the perfect orientation for the coming tour. We began to learn a bit the region and about Keith who moved to the Czech Republic more than 20 years ago. He started doing bead tours because his mom was an avid beader. His knowledge of the country and understanding of the language made him perfect. He told us that over the next three days we would visit Czech bead shops and factories, all with different styles of beads, and a glass museum. Keith pulled out some catalogs for a few of the places we would visit that day, and he asked some more questions about the types of beads we found interesting.
This was when it got hard. How was I supposed explain what I wanted to see when I hadn’t seen it and didn’t know how the first place would differ from the next and the one after that? How was I supposed to decide? It was going to get even harder.
Our first stop was the Rutkovsky factory. The two brothers who run the business met us in their small showroom and offered us cappuccinos. In their early to mid thirties, they looked very alike and reminded us of teddy bears. Coffee in hand they led us to their warehouse area. OMG!!! It was an overload of a awesomeness. I knew that I was exclaiming a lot even before Robin said, “Paula, you should NEVER play poker.” The room was new and modern, like their building, with rows of shelves stocked with countless packages of beads. Bead Heaven! There was so much I didn’t know where to begin. It was so overwhelming. Still, I had to start somewhere and ultimately I came away with some lovely and unusual beads.
The next stop was an early lunch in a small, family run, community restaurant, built in a valley along a small river, with goats in the yard next door. There warmed by a wood burning stove, Robin and I enjoyed our first taste bowl of garlic soup. Following lunch we visited an “antique” shop straight out of American Pickers and another bead shop down a muddy country lane. I came away with unique things from both places.
It was about three o’clock and Keith drove us back to Jablonec and the family run, Hotel Na Baste. There we made a quick stop in a supermarket for snack and cash. Many of the bead shops only accepted cash and this was the first of several trips to an ATM. We had a couple of hours before we were supposed to meet Keith in the hotel dining room, so despite the intermittent snow flurries/wet rain, Robin and I set off to explore town. We quickly saw how prosperous glass had made the community in the previous centuries. The neighborhood was full of large homes. Some were converted to businesses and even a police station, but others were obviously still homes. Mixed into the outskirts were large towers of flats, some left over the communism, with newer construction beginning to pop up.
The next morning we were off early to Matura Beads, home of Matubo. The Matura family has generations of glass bead experience. A great grandfather invented the automatic bead press. The family lost their company to the communists after WWII but bought it back before the fall of communism. If they had waited until after the fall, they would have had it freely returned to them by the government, like other nationalized companies. While this timeline meant they paid for something they could have had for free, it also meant they were able to get a jumpstart in the modern Czech bead business. We are all the better for it. Today, they are leaders in the business and home to superduo, rullo and superuno beads. They are also ramping up their production of seed beads. Here in the States, it is easy to find their larger beads, 6/0 and 8/0 beads, but 11/0 seed beads are still rare. And they haven’t yet made the super small 15/0 beads. They use a laser to cut their seed beads to consistent, precise sizes not achieved by even Toho.
In fact, until the trip I hadn’t know about their seed bead production and certainly hadn’t used them. Knowing my style of work, Keith realized a stop at Matura was a must. I went absolutely gaga over the range of super duos. They showed us into a room of shelves stocked up with red bins full of superduos! I saw hundreds of colors and finishes, many, many of which I had never before seen! They gave me a little scoop and bags to fill. Robin proved the most worthy of sisters and assistants and held the bags while I scooped and marvelled. While the women working didn’t speak English, they certainly understood my sighs of appreciation. Price was determined by kilo, and I bought 6.5KG of superduos, more than 14 pounds!
I have one REALLY big regret about this stop on the tour though. As I mentioned, I had never heard about or used the Matubo 11/0 beads. I didn’t want to invest a lot of money on an untested product, so I bought just 4 smallish bags of different colors. Well, I have used them now and know that I can never go back. I’m trying desperately to source more in a range of colors. Matura has a couple of US distributors but the selection of 11/0s is pitiful compared to the selection at the factory. I messaged the company but haven’t heard back. I’ll keep you posted as this develops.
Later that day we popped into a small lampwork shop gallery for Robin and headed back over the hills to Jablonec to visit its Museum of Glass and Jewelry. This place alone would make a visit to Jablonec worthwhile. The first floor was devoted to the history and production of beads, jewelry and buttons. On the second we explored the history of Czech glass and saw fabulous modern examples of functional and art glass. Among other things, I learned that the Czech company Lasvit manufactures the Tour de France trophies.
Our final visit on our final day was one of my favorite stops, Czech Beads. Their name may not be fancy but their beads speak for themselves. At this point I had run out of space in my luggage as well as Robin’s. I paid for my order with them to be shipped. I’ll share that when it arrives. This family run business gave us one of the best insights into the history and manufacture of Czech beads. More on that in Adventures in Glass Country (Part 3).