(Prosser Beads Revisited)

By John and Ruth Picard

February, 1995

In the spring of 1994 a new museum, Musée de la Mosaïque et des Emaux, opened in Briare, France dedicated to the life and work of Jean-Félix Bapterosses (1813-1885). Briare, a charming provincial city is situated on the Loire River between Tours and Nevers about two hours south of Paris. Although several good articles have already been written about Bapterosses,1 the archives of this new museum, under the enthusiastic direction of Madame Diane d'Harcourt, shed much new light on the subject of porcelain or "Prosser" beads, as they are often referred to in the trade. The museum displays a collection of Bapterosses factory production that includes buttons, beads and mosaics. Also on display are some simulated chevrons with superficial painted layers that have not been seen yet in the African trade. In one of the display cases are some Venetian beads which Bapterosses had probably collected on his travels. These include some old Venetian chevrons from the 19th century, which we have personally never seen before. These are of extreme interest to any chevron collector. Also in the reserves are housed an extensive collection of sample cards of Bapterosses' production that includes buttons, beads, indigenous amulets of all types, shell imitations, imitation teeth and claws, snake vertebrae, Christian and Moslem rosaries.

"Prosser" beads are by extension any beads made by the "Prosser" technique, invented by the Prosser brothers in 1840 in England for the purpose of making buttons. The process consists of molding a cold paste under great pressure and then firing it. The finished product looks like porcelain and is often referred to as such. This method allows for only opaque colors, not translucent ones. It is not clear if the Prossers themselves made any products from their invention. Minton and Chamberlain bought their patent and started producing buttons in 1843.

Jean-Félix Bapterosses left France in the same year for a study trip to England. He visited the first button-making factories of Minton and Chamberlain where the Prosser method was employed. On his return to France he was able to improve upon the work of Minton and Chamberlain, whose machines could only produce one button at a time. In 1844 he patented a machine that could make 500 buttons at once. He also ameliorated the plasticity of the paste incorporating milk into it. Eventually a farm would be built adjacent to the factory to supply the 500 liters of milk needed daily for production.

After his success with buttons, Bapterosses started producing beads in 1860 - 1864. Soon the factory employed 1800 workers and produced 400-500 tons of beads per year. Briare was nicknamed the "Cité des perles ." His two British competitors, Minton and Chamberlain, were not able to compete. Minton eventually left the button business to produce high-quality china. Chamberlain signed a commercial agreement with Bapterosses which allowed Chamberlain to use his patents in return for royalties. The possibility, therefore, exists that "Prosser" beads could also have been made in England.

The principal markets for Bapterosses' beads were, according to factory records, Bolivia, the Middle East and mainly Africa. The bead-necklaces served to obtain the favor of chiefs and to acquire safe passage through certain territories. Shrewd salesmen made sure that the beads were strung on fragile cord, so that the strands would easily break. Natives were told that it was sacrilegious to pick them up, assuring a rollover and more business for the company.

Over the years Bapterosses mastered this type of porcelain product. He ameliorated the technique, added new colors, used hand painting to decorate certain items, adding new discoveries all the time. His work attracted the attention of the Czechs. After the 1870 European war, there was an economic depression in France. The Czechs went to Briare to bring some specialized workers back with them to Gablonz (present day Jablonec nad Nisou). By the end of the century, porcelain beads were being produced in Gablonz, but they could not some of the time equal the work of the French.2

After Bapterosses' death in 1885 the family kept the business going and introduced in 1889 the production of mosaics, which would in the next century slowly replace beads and buttons as the primary factory product.

In 1930 a partnership was formed between Bapterosses of France and two German firms (Risler and Company and Ferd. Schmetz), one Czech firm (the Brothers Redlhammer) and one Italian firm (the Brothers Simonis) in order to distribute Bapterosses' products. "Prosser" beads have also been referred to as having been produced in Germany. Effectively, sample cards from the Risler Company show these types of beads; but, by contract, the Rislers were distributing Bapterosses' wares. More confusion occurs when two Risler cards appear in the collection of the Pitt-Rivers Museum of Oxford, England with the Risler Co. logo, but without the RC letters. Instead, it bears the stamp of another firm: Ehret and Pabst of Bremen, Germany. They may have been sub-distributors of Risler and Co. On the Gablonz side more puzzles have to be deciphered. The Brothers Redlhammer apparently worked very closely with Bapterosses. Some of their sample cards use the same article numbers of four digits, which excludes all coincidence. Their logo (the panther head) is somewhat similar to the Bapterosses logo (lion head). After the Second World War and under the Communist regime, we see the same logo without the RB letters (Redlhammer Brothers). This logo is now the logo (for at least for that type of bead), of Preciosa Company, a small part of which specialized in "Prosser" beads. Had the Redlhammer Co. been absorbed by Preciosa? (There is no information about the Redlhammers after the war.) In 1993 Preciosa stopped producing this type of porcelain beads for economic reasons.

Another piece of the puzzle appears on sample cards from the Sachse Co. in the Jablonec nad Nisou Museum of Glass and Jewelry showing porcelain beads from the end of the nineteenth century. To date, not much information is known about the Sachse Company, but their sample card collection is very large. Most of the Jablonec Museum's sample cards show the emblem of the Sachse Co. Out of the 350 bead exporting houses in Gablonz before the Second World War,3 it is hard to conceive that Sachse was producing all of the types of beads being made at that time. That would have included regular pressed beads, cut (faceted) beads including fire-polished and "vaseline" beads, metalized beads, lamp beads, plastic as imitation amber or vulcanic beads (heishi), drawn beads including "elbow" and "Russian blues", wooden beads and porcelain beads. It seems more likely that the Sachse Co. was producing some of the beads, but they may have also been representing a lot of other firms. The Sachse Company also had offices in Austria and Venice. Another interesting detail - two sample cards housed in the Pitt-Rivers Museum from the Sachse Co. in Austria show identical, unusual articles to those produced by Bapterosses: one card shows three large porcelain rings (shell imitation); the other card shows imitation lion's teeth in two sizes and two types of canine and one type of molar teeth. All of the ring conus shells and the large lion's teeth are the same on both companies' cards. It is hard to believe that two companies would produce both of these uncommon items in exactly the same sizes without some prior agreement. The Sachse Co. was eventually sold in 1922 to the Società Veneziana Conterie of Venice, Italy. This explains the presence of a number of Czech sample cards in the Conterie's warehouses.4

A combination of factors in the 1950s and 60s helped contribute to the demise of the "porcelain" button and bead industry: the use of plastic as a primary source, the competition of less expensive Czech beads, and the independence of the African countries. In 1962 the Société Bapterosses became unprofitable and was sold. The business changed hands several times since then. It still exists today on a smaller scale that produces only high-quality tiles and mosaics. In the meantime Bapterosses' bead-making machinery was sold by the weight to a Moroccan firm.

Looking at numerous sample cards of "porcelain" beads both of Bapterosses and the Czechs, a few points need to be made.

1) Practically all the production on Czech sample cards are also found on the Bapterosses cards, but this is not true vice-verso where, out of a few hundred items, only about half of what is seen on the Bapterosses cards appears on the Czech cards. 2) Most of the items are identical - for instance tile beads and Oriental beads, making it impossible to discern one from the other. 3) Some slight variations in shape or size exist, as in snake beads. The Bapterosses snake beads are more pointed; the Czechs' are more rounded, making it impossible for the two types to interlock on a strand as they should.

To summarize, the production of "Prosser" beads today is almost defunct. In the last few years Morocco has been quietly trying to revive this process with a few items. According to John Porentas, the company is not thriving and may not continue in this direction.5 Once distributed all over Africa, the "Prosser" bead, which was one of the cheapest to be produced in large quantities, seems to be history now.

Today this type of molded bead and its related articles are too rapidly classified as Czech, and although a good proportion of them were made there, the "Prosser" bead seems to have been pioneered and made in a lot of varieties by Bapterosses. His place in the history of beads has been greatly underestimated. Madame d'Harcourt of the Briare Museum estimates that it will take about five years to sift through all the material on Bapterosses.6 The opening of the new museum in Briare with all its accompanying material will give us in the future a lot more information on this enterprising man who left his mark on the bead industry. The new museum also represents a giant step toward unraveling the European bead industry with all its complexities and interrelationships. Many mysteries still remain to be uncovered such as the origin of the large shell imitation nicknamed "hippo teeth" and the origin of all the different manufactures of "fake" chevrons in the African trade. The Bapterosses information also underlines the fact that the bead industry in Europe was more closely related than we thought. Whether in competition or working together, the bead manufacturers and their brokers were all dependent on each other.

John and Ruth Picard

February, 1995

  1. See Sprague, Tile Bead Manufacturing in "Proceedings of the 1982 Glass Trade Bead Conference," edited by Charles F. Hayes. Rochester Museum and Science Center; and Marie-Jose Opper and Howard Opper, French Beadmaking: An Historical Perspective Emphasizing the 19th and 20th Centuries in "Beads: Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers, 1991 Volume 3, edited by Karlis Karklins.
  2. Personal communication from Peter Pus of Jablonex Co., 1994.
  3. Personal communication from Vladislav Chvalina of Jablonex Co., 1990.
  4. We personally saw this sample card collection in the Conterie's warehouses in 1988. The Conterie closed permanently in 1992, six years short of its centennial.
  5. Personal communication, February,1995.
  6. Personal communication, September, 1994.