If you know the Dempsey & Baxter family, you know that customer stories are very special to us. Recently a customer brought a great story to us which inspired one of our jewelers (Eric Rothrock) to create a custom jewelry design.
This is her story:
One day in July, I showed up at Dempsey & Baxter with an entirely prosaic, matte blue bead in hand. It was a hexagonal piece of glass, obviously hand-made and significantly weathered or at least abraded and eroded for having spent a long time in salt water. It stood out in the shop only for its plainness. Why on earth would anyone afflict such an item on a skilled jeweler?
Well, it turns out that the bead has a story, a wonderful story. It’s a “slave bead,” which I found on a dive vacation in June 2012 with my husband, Jim, and my dear friend, Cynthia. Between them, Jim and Cynthia have decades of SCUBA experience. In contrast, I was on my 13th dive … ever. We were taken to a spot called Blue Bead Hole just off the Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius. The location is what they call a “macro site,” which means it’s good for viewing little things that you can only see very close up. It is famous for the frequency with which one can find fish there called flying gurnards, other-worldly creatures with iridescent blue fins that look like the wings of some steam-punk fantasy machine. And the very lucky diver occasionally also finds there the eponymous blue bead.We were told that the beads are pretty rare these days. Lots of divers visit Statia, and it’s not easy to find a bead the size of the nail on your index finger in the vast white sands of the Caribbean. Thing is, while I am new to diving, I am an old hand at beading … and for having spent a fair bit of time searching for beads dropped on the floor or in the carpet or under the counter, I think I’m pretty good at finding stray beads. I spotted this one because its shape was so clearly unnatural. (It was covered with a white, calcium deposit, so none of its trademark blue was visible there at 60 feet.)
These blue trade beads are found the world over–including in some rather fanciful museum.exhibits. In the event, they were manufactured from 1613 into the 1660s in Amsterdam as barter wares for the Dutch East India Company. Manhattan Island was famously “purchased” for thirty of these beads, for example.
In the Dutch-controlled Caribbean, they served as currency among the slaves. The story on Statia, as the locals call the island, is that when slavery was abolished on 1 July 1863, the natives flung their beads into the sea to symbolize their freedom (to make real money). It’s far likelier–but less poetic–that the blue beads one still finds in Statia’s waters are debris from shipwrecks or jetsam. Either way, it’s a wonderful souvenir of Statia!
We asked Eric to set it appropriately and adorn it with some metalwork and stones to evoke the blues and greens of the tropical Caribbean. The finished piece is a lovely reminder of the trip and a fitting tribute to the bead’s history.[If you don’t have a photo of the finished piece, let me know, and we’ll provide one! I’m attaching a couple of shots of the plain old bead …] Best, Carolyn