Hand-wrapped choker of Czech glass beads, inspired by vintage Mardi Gras “throws”.
It’s Fat Tuesday today and you know, I went and made a necklace inspired by my by-gone collection of vintage Mardi Gras beads. You see, the first things I sold on Etsy were collections of my vintage pieces– I couldn’t find decent work to save my life and I needed money, so I sold my things. When I had sold most of the vintage beads and Bohemian necklaces, the old pawn silver and vintage rosaries, I started to make jewellery designs based on these beloved things, like the necklace pictured above. The mardi gras beads were some of the last things I sold. I held onto them and wore them during the Katrina nightmare– if these beads could survive and make it to England with me, that City could survive and rebuild.
Sometimes I think of my old collection with a tinge of sadness and longing. Maybe it’s homesickness, maybe I’m jonesing for colour in the long, grey Yorkshire winter. When I visited New Orleans, I always combed the second hand stores, junk and antique shops hoping to find a stash of them, some still with the paper tags on them. The ones that survived so that they could be collected in the present day must be lucky indeed.
“Thows” or beads thrown from floats to the parade audience, weren’t always made of plastic like they are now. From the 1920s until WWII, Pressed Czech glass was used. These beads came in a dazzling array of shapes and colours, like bon-bons. My inner child really loved these joyfully random toy necklaces destined for the gutter. They could survive a street party of such magnitude an still be worn decades later– they were survivor beads. I loved restringing them (as they were often in dire need of it!) but I kept the randomness and would wear them in layers. Maybe someday I will return to New Orleans and rebuild my collection. Until then, I’m using new, pressed Czech glass beads, which I would like to think are being made with the old moulds, and making these luxe versions of the old fashioned glass “throw”.
An old photo of me waring some of my vintage Mardi Gras beads.
It’s Fat Tuesday, and I’m indulging in some wistful homesickness for New Orleans, one of my favourite cities in the US. The city definitely influences much of what I create– the riotous colour of carnival juxtaposed against the black iron balconies of the French Quarter, the cities of the dead, the motley beads of carnival, particularly vintage Czech ones, were some of my earliest inspirations as well as the stories of Marie Laveau and the markings on her grave, which inspired the piece below.
It’s also the New Moon– time to embrace new beginnings. New Orleans’ survival after Katrina is truly something to celebrate. I remember vividly watching from across and ocean as the destruction of the hurricane and the ineptitude and racism of the Bush Administration threatened to destroy New Orleans and the surrounding area. I felt quite helpless and anguished. When English people are incredulous about why I would leave the US, sometimes I wish I could explain the feeling of doom much of the country shared while George Bush was president. I love Bob Forrest’s cover of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana”– which sums up that emotion very well. Here he sings it with his son.
Blessed New Moon to all my readers, may you bring some New Orleans style carnival and maybe even a bit of the city’s survivor spirit to whatever you choose to begin now!
Lately I’ve been thinking about Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, that mediation on angelic compassion. It has Rilke at its heart, insisting on sensual witness, on human delights that one imagines angels can only envy. Rilke wrote “Every angels is terrifying”.
This conviction is missing from the fluffy New Age vision of guardian angels– something I reject. It’s not that I don’t believe, it’s that I’m convinced seeing one would destroy you. With that said, what about hearing angels? What about that little voice that seems to come from within and without? That is real– it has a name in Hebrew: Bat Kol, or small voice– the voice of the divine.
This is my concession to the sentimentalized angel– a little Victorian wing suspended from a vintage rosary fragment– Mary’s profile worn to a glossy ghost by years of prayer, combined with the carnival glitter of Swarovski crystals and vintage mardi gras beads. I would hope Wim Wenders’ angel Damiel would approve.
Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” is the last all-out party day before Lent. The tradition of “throws” or beads tossed from floats dates from the 1920s. Originally the necklaces were made of Czech glass up until the 1960s when plastic was introduced.
For many years I combed the flea markets and junk shops of New Orleans collecting these vintage strands of beads, lovingly restringing them and imagining the street parties and music infused with their history.
I was particularly fascinated by these strands that had survived the throws and their original destiny as a kind of disposable favor. There’s a chaotic beauty in their random patterns, and now that they have new clasps they seem to be just waiting for the joyful noise of the next Fat Tuesday.