Japan is a country where you can sip tea in a 400-year-old teahouse, or sip canned hot coffee from a vending machine. You’ll find tiny, fuel-efficient cars and a 50-foot-tall bronze Buddha. They have as many ancient temples as we have Starbucks (and sometimes they have both on the same city block). In March 2007, in the homeland of my ancestors, while the rest of the country examined the buds of cherry blossoms for confirmation of spring’s arrival, I had a different mission: To see first-hand the source of some of my favorite beads at one of Japan’s largest seed bead manufacturers – Toho.
Founded in 1951, the Toho Company has sales offices in Tokyo and Osaka and its factory in Hiroshima, with a total of about 180 employees. On the same property as the factory is Toho’s Glass Village, a public attraction including a retail shop; glasswork studios and classrooms; glass and enamel art museum; and a delightful museum of bead artifacts from many cultures collected over the years by the founder.
Toho’s museum of bead artifacts collected by the company’s founder. Photographer Greg Mullin
Toho’s showroom of bead samples. Photographer Greg Mullin
When beaders encounter seed beads for the first time, they often wonder, How in the world are those tiny beads made? Silica and other raw materials are mixed with coloring agents, and then put into furnaces for hours until the glass has the consistency of taffy. Molten glass flows through a hole to a lower level and is pulled for a distance of about 80 to 100 feet (depending on the size or color of the bead being made) as a stream of compressed air is blown through its center, creating a tube. The shape and diameter of the eventual bead are determined during this process. This long tube is cooled and cut into workable lengths.
In the cutting areas, high-speed machines do the actual cutting of the glass tubes into bead-sized pieces, but employees quality-check by hand and eye. Despite the high-tech tools and systems used, a number of key points in the manufacturing process depend on human assessment, and there is still no substitute for the human eye.
After the tubes are cut into bead-sized pieces, the beads are coated with powdered carbon and refired in kilns to make them round. The carbon is then washed off. Next, a polishing process gives the beads their characteristic smoothness and shine. Transparent and opaque beads are complete at this point. Other beads go through a series of steps that vary, depending on the color and finish of the bead. For example, a matte finish is created by roughening an otherwise shiny bead surface before the beads are washed.
Toho has a strong interest in U.S. beading trends and American beaders, since we are its biggest export customer. Toho also exports to Europe, Australia and other parts of Asia. Talking to its leaders, I was impressed by Toho’s desire to produce ever more beautiful beads and continually create innovative shapes and fresh colors. Every tiny bead has decades of research and development behind it. I, for one, hope Toho has many decades ahead to give us more of the beads we love.
Make sure and check out all of the amazing new Toho seed beads we have available at FusionBeads.com! Choose from a spectrum of gorgeous colors in the most popular sizes and shapes, including rounds, cubes, hexes, and more!