Most of us from north of the border associate beadwork with the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada. If we are more aware of Mexico, we may know something about the Wixáritari (Huichol) who are probably most famous for this craft in this country. However, beadwork was an important activity in pre Hispanic Mexico and even continued to have significance from the Conquest to the late 19th century.
As in a number of parts of the world and at various times in history beads and their use played a significant cultural role. Although we think of them today mostly as cheap junk, this is only because they are now so easy to manufacture in great quantity. The value that beads had in pre-industrial cultures is not hard to understand when you consider that they were made one-at-a-time and very often without metal tools. In other words, the value of beads came not so much from the value of the materials, but rather the work that went into making them.
Taking Mesoamerica as the example, bead and bead-like objects were made from shell, bone, animal teeth, clay, gold and semi-precious stones like jade. The type and quantity of beads worn were often more than just decorative, they often indicated social rank. Aztec nobles wore beads made of jade. More common people would have beads of more common and took less time to shape and perforate. The easiest beads to make are simply seeds that have been pierced by a needles. Jewelry and other objects made of seeds can still be seen in Oaxaca, Guerrero and among various groups in Baja California.
Although Europe had not yet entered the Industrial Age, the continent had become adept at making glass beads. Glass is made with ordinary sand, which can be melted down and dripped in an array of small molds, allowing for something akin to mass production in comparison. Glass was an unknown substance in the New World, so the value of beads remained high.
It is known that glass beads arrived early in the colonial period, but because the material is fragile, very little physical evidence survives. According to records from the colonial period, Hernán Cortés took off a collar made with glass beads imitating precious stones off his own neck to give to Montezuma. It certainly was introduced by conquistadors and missionaries and native artisans quickly adopted them. From 1531 to 1591, the city of Culiacan excelled in the use of beads as soldiers traded them with the locals for gold nuggets found in this northern territory. The trade in glass beads in Mexico (and other parts of the world) created demand such that enterprises in Europe began manufacturing them specifically for this kind of export. They were followed by beads produced in India and China, brought over on the Manila Galleon. (For this reason, beads are are sometimes called “chinitas” (little Chinese ones).) It is interesting to note that a percentage of the beads produced in Europe found their way back as part of
handcrafted items, applied to textiles, necklaces, religious objects, and many of these finely-made pieces can be found still in European museums. The Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City has a number of valuable pieces made with glass beads. Their value does not come from the materials but rather the skilled work needed to produce them.
The popularity of glass beads among the indigenous did not mean that beadwork in Mexico was limited to them.
The Spanish brought over their own beadworking techniques and designs. These would make the greatest impact in central Mexico. Much of the beadwork in the colonial period by the non-indigenous was done by nuns. The most important use of beads was in the making of rosaries. Nuns also made other finery, adorning the clothing for the statues of saints as well as altar cloths and with wire, making flower decorations as well as the crowns that were commonly seen on images of nuns. A popular bead used by the nuns was called the lentejuela (as they are roughly the size and shape of lentils. Nuns also taught girls from well-to-do families to decorate with beads. Saddles and bridles could be decorated with them and specialty beads, such as those made from silver, adorned finely made containers and clothing for the nobility.
The apogee of beadwork came in the 19th century, with beadwork commonly found on many women’s clothing, even those living in very rural areas. Almost all the beads used during this century came from what is now the Czech Republic, Italy or Asia. However, the supply of beads from Europe dropped after Independence with the end of the runs of the Manila Galleon. These were soon replaced by those brought by English traders generally from India and China. These new shipments also included cigarette cases decorated with beads, which the Mexicans quickly copied, adapting Mexican motifs.
However, the use of beads among the non-indigenous dropped permanently at the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th with the adoption of French fashions in Mexico.
Beadwork became relegated to handcrafts and to some extent, the decoration of bridal gowns (similar to beadwork’s fate in the US). The substitution of plastic for glass in most cases devalued beadwork even further.
Today, beadwork as a valued cultural handcraft is all but gone but with a number of important exceptions. They are found in areas where Spanish (and later Mexican criollo) had the least cultural dominance, especially in the colonial period. One such area is in eastern Mexico in parts of Puebla, Veracruz and Hidalgo. Here, the use of fine beadwork is found on traditional women’s blouses, especially the yoke. The blouses themselves are of Spanish origin, with Oriental influence. The beadwork motifs are a mix of Spanish colonial and indigenous designs and can be found among the Totonacs, Nahuas, Tepehuas and Otomi. The beadwork can indicate where the blouse is from, but this is not always the case.
Although still found, the making of these blouses is waning due to the time and effort needed to apply the beads. These blouses used to be part of daily wear, but they are not reserved for special occasions or made for sale. It is a similar story with men’s shirts, although they never had the quantity of beadwork as the women’s blouses. Some beadwork blouses are also made in the Costa Chica region of Oaxaca and Guerrero by Mixtec women, but are mainly sold to mestizo women for the Chinelas dance
Another important use of beadwork on clothing is the making of the dress of the Poblana China (lit. Chinese woman from Puebla). She was supposedly a noble women who was captured in India and sold as a slave. In the Philippines, she was baptized as Catarina de San Juan by the Jesuits, then brought to Mexico where she spent the rest of her life. (She is buried in one of the city’s churches.)
Catarina is credited for the creation of this particular style of festive dress, distinguished particularly by the skirt, which contains a large number of flattened beads (and/or sequins today) sewn on to form images and patterns that cover nearly the entire front of the garment. The China Poblana’s outfit was banned in the latter colonial period, considered by Spanish authorities as politically provocative. When Mexico gained its independence, the dress reappeared and became a national symbol. Other articles of clothing adorned with the national seal of Mexico (an eagle with a snake, perched on a cactus) in beadwork also became very popular.
By far the most famous beadwork done in Mexico today is done by the Wixáritari. The reason for this is that the vast majority of items that they make with beads are for sale to both Mexican and foreigners (tourists). They and their work are a common sight not only in western Mexico where Wixáritari communities are found (Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas and Durango) but in most of the popular tourist areas far from there.
Authentic uses of beadwork is for ceremonial objects, such as the Kuka, a three-dimensional mask used by shamans. However, beads can be found covering a wide array of objects. The most common of these are small wood sculptures (often of animals) and beaded necklaces and earrings. The sculptures are covered in campeche wax, then the beads are applied one-by-one, after being arranged on a needle to make the process quicker and easier.
Wixáritari beadwork is extremely popular in tourist markets and has even been applied to modern objects such as footwear (using glue instead of wax). For the 2010 Mexican Bicentennial of Independence, the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City commissioned four Wixáritari families to design and decorate a VW Beetle (known as a “vocho” in Mexico) with traditional and patriotic symbols. The resulting work of art is known as the Vochol (combination of vocho and huichol). It was originally made for auction as a fundraiser, but it was so popular that the museum kept it and uses it for promotional purposes.
Other traditional uses of beads can by found in northern and northwestern Mexico. The Tarahumara uses many strings of bead as necklaces. The Yaquis of Sonora during the Deer Dance will denote local elders with necklaces made of white beads and crosses made of shell. There remain some Kickapoo in a small area of Coahuila who conserve their traditional beadwork, such as those found on moccasins.
However, even among the more traditional groups, traditional beadwork finds itself under pressure. Cucupa women used to wear a very large and elaborate beadwork collar that covered the chest instead of a blouse. This is no longer the case but examples of these collars can be found in museums in Baja California and other parts of Mexico.