|Natural vs. Treated Agate Beads|
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As often happens, there are usually many more questions than answers.
Because the ancient methods of altering stone (colors) is imperfectly understood, and, in time, covers thousands of years, it is very possible that many formulas and techniques were exploited.
My goal has been, essentially, to provide the knowledge that is understood, and in a general way has had an impact upon beadmaking. The closer we get to modern times, the better is our knowledge and evidence. And, to some degree, this allows us to speculate what may have happened in antiquity, with some degree of reliability. And I inserted myself into this arena of discussion because I believed (and still believe) that many popular ideas are or have been founded in fallacy, misunderstanding, poor exposition, lazy terminology, and (of course) mythology.
Here is an encapsulation of my experience. Amid all the ideas expressed about decorated agate beads, and particularly zi beads (and also about beads that routinely were said to be "natural," but were actually treated), I came to discuss these ideas with my friend Si Frazier—who is a geologist, mineralogist, and gemologist. He and his wife Ann, had been attending the Gem Shows at Idar-Oberstein for decades—and were well-versed in the artificial treatments routinely applied in Germany. So I learned about what I now call "caramelization" and "carbonization." I was encouraged to read the available literature (much advanced now, by comparison)—which I did. And I endeavored to carefully examine every ancient bead I came across, for any indications of these coloring processes. I looked at hundreds of beads. Particularly broken beads—because their interiors were exposed.
In nearly every instance of examining a broken bead, whether these were beads from anywhere in Asia (including Island SE Asia), or specifically India and the Himalayas, in viewing the dark areas, and their immediate interiors, I could see that the brown or black coloration was superficial—and artificially added.
This led me to believe that the artificial coloring of ancient agate beads, was extremely ancient, and either widely practiced, OR the beads (mostly from India) were widely dispersed.
When any bead is fully in-tact, there is no practical way to determine whether the coloration is natural or treated. These treatments actually imitate nature, by introducing elemental mineral contaminants, just as nature did when stones were formed.
But, I think it is accurate to say that many early beads were made from entirely natural banded agates. But the makers also, eventually, determined that they could alter stones to make them more interesting or beautiful. And, I reason, once they devised these processes, they probably searched to find agate sources that would accept these treatments—just as they would have continued to exploit whatever already-highly-colored natural agates, from whatever sources could be known.
Regarding the round tabular beads, that Tibetans call "lukmik" (or "lugmig"), that have become very very collectible—in my article for Arts of Asia (2002) I show a variety of these beads, that includes what I accept are probably natural stones, as well as beads that have only been colored, or colored and decorated. The natural lukmik are IDENTICAL to beads excavated at Ur in Mesopotamia, and were made at Harappa (from ca. 3000 BCE) I do not doubt for an instant that these are Mesopotamian beads that migrated to Tibet. And I suppose the colored and decorated beads were made later, and most-likely also made in India.
I will try to show some photos. But, I have a new hard drive in my computer—and most of my older photos are now in backup drives and flash drives. So I will have to search for and edit some images.
In any event, I cannot make a reasonable guestiment on percentages of natural agate from altered agate. I really can only say that the artificial treatments are very old, were exploited for a long time—up to recent times, and that treated beads are numerous.
I hope this is helpful. Be well. Jamey