So, it doesn't take a PhD to deduce that a majority of these unblemished,
top-tier beads are likely fakes! Today, the Far East is awash with new beads
masquerading as old, a deceptive mirage that challenges the integrity of
this ancient art form.
The Vanishing Act of Ancient Beads after
Some of my informants in the Far East have been in conversation with
bead dealers from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They report that finding genuine
ancient beads has become an increasingly formidable task, predicting that
within the next three years, they will be virtually extinct.
But where are these precious artifacts going?
Their destination is mainland China, where they circulate within exclusive
circles of affluent collectors. These circles form a clandestine fraternity,
its treasures hidden from public scrutiny.
The Might of Bead-Currency and the Ultra-Rich
In these circles, authentic beads serve a unique role, functioning much
like Bitcoins in high-end business transactions. The Dzi bead, naturally, is
the most coveted bead-coin. High-quality beads in this context act as a form
of liquid cash, far more discreet and easily transportable than traditional
Favors can be exchanged, not with conspicuous briefcases filled with dollar
bills, but with a subtle handshake, where a small, black stone changes
hands. Much like cryptocurrencies, these transactions evade the watchful
eyes of government authorities.
A further advantage of bead-coins is that they leave no digital footprint.
Enormous wealth can change hands, with only the involved parties aware of
the transaction. This silent and untraceable commerce is a powerful
testament to the enduring allure and value of these ancient beads.
Bead Hunger and the Nouveau Riche
In a situation where not just DZI, but all forms of genuine ancient
beads are becoming increasingly scarce, one has to ask: How can the growing
bead hunger among China's emerging affluent class be satisfied? This nouveau
riche demographic in China, although not as economically powerful as the
top-tier oligarchs, is imitating upper-class trends. In the context of
Chinese bead culture, their economic power corresponds to Chung DZI or
Certainly, there is already a substantial circulation of genuine ancient
beads among the wealthier segments of Asian societies. The last two decades
have seen a steady influx of real beads into China. Moreover, there is a
significant number of serious and knowledgeable Chinese higher middle-class
collectors who appreciate beads for their intrinsic artistic and historical
However, when compared to the rapidly expanding number of affluent
individuals who covet beads without any genuine interest in their art or
history, these genuine collectors play a minor role.
A Brief Meta-Story about the Mainland Chinese
Let's take a moment to examine this phenomenon on a meta-level. There's
nothing inherently wrong with this social trend. Tales of new wealth without
knowledge or refinement have been told globally at different times in
history. It's an inevitable phenomenon when a newly wealthy middle class
emerges rapidly. As the English adage goes: "It takes three generations to
make a gentleman." And, indeed, the new China is producing gentlemen and
women at an unprecedented pace.
During my last bead exhibition in Bangkok, I was amazed at the number of
incredibly intelligent and cultured young Chinese people I encountered.
Fake It Till You Make It
Returning to our primary topic, in the bead vacuum that has formed in China,
a new wave of high-quality counterfeit beads has emerged to replace the
genuine ones. This trend has expanded beyond DZI to virtually all other
types of beads. In recent years, even Indus beads, which are not typically
sought after by Eastern collectors, have been falsified on a grand scale. In
Bangkok, I also observed Chinese bead dealers purchasing counterfeit
seal beads from the
Persian Sassanian culture. Both the
sellers and buyers knew they were fakes, but this seemed to be of no
This demonstrates that Chinese interest in ancient beads has broadened.
Initially, only beads that held value in Tibetan tradition were in demand.
This development is not in line with the typical 'collectors cultural
evolution-pattern', where new collectors start with a very narrow scope of
interest that gradually evolves into a global fascination. This natural
progression has only been observed among collectors in Hong Kong.
The sudden surge of interest in all types of beads from mainland China is
driven more by voracious demand than discerning taste.
Beads crafted far from Tibet, and within entirely different traditions of
manufacture and use, are immediately given Tibetan names on platforms like
eBay, by Facebook dealers, and on other more or less dubious bead websites.
This is done to cater to the Chinese palate with familiar flavors. Even
beads from Africa are now labelled as Chung DZI and with this name attached,
they are quickly sold. When the hunger is intense, any foodóeven fake
foodówill suffice. This expansion into a broader range of beads makes it
even more challenging for collectors to identify the counterfeits.
Therefore, the production of fakes and the expansion of bead types are
Most of the newly affluent collectors lack the necessary experience to
determine whether a bead they like is genuine or not. Only seasoned
collectors can differentiate between these new wave fakes and the rare
In Taiwan, there are even TV programs dedicated to the production of fake
beads. In one such show, a counterfeiter demonstrated how he used ancient
drills and then strung his beads on a loop where they went back and forth
endlessly until the holes appeared as if they had been used for generations.
The counterfeiter openly stated: The Chinese like it this way.
Cheaper Beads are Cheaper Faked
As I mentioned earlier, even Indus beads, which were not previously in
high demand, have increasingly been replicated. However, these fakes are
still relatively easy to spot. Why? Because the prices for Indus beads are
still far from the inflated world of DZI bead-coins. Who would go to great
lengths to perfectly counterfeit a type of bead that fetches a relatively
It's not inexpensive to create a truly perfect imitation bead. Yes, you can
tumble the bead in a leather bag as was done in ancient times. You can drill
the hole with ancient copper tools. You can cook the bead in sea salt and
then dry it in a dehydrator. Many methods are employed to give it an antique
appearance. However, it is still difficult to replicate the patinas that
come from excavation, burial in a stupa, or wear over 30 generations. Even
more challenging is mimicking ancient scars and cracks.
I can't substantiate the following thought, but consider it as a way to
broaden your perspective: Let's say it costs $2,000 to create a high-quality
replica bead in a Chinese laboratory, one that could even fool experienced
collectors. If such a bead were to follow the regular dealer profit rate, it
would be priced at least $10,000!
The Sugar Coating of Ancient Patina
Through scientific methods primarily developed in Taiwan, but also mainland
China, replicas are getting better and better. This expensive, high-end
replication mainly targets the Chinese DZI craze. The latest news, according
to my 'spies,' is that mainland China now has advanced laboratories that can
analyze the chemical composition of a bead's stone material. From this
chemical analysis, they 'sugar coat' the bead with a patina that looks
The Changing Landscape of Bead Collecting
Indeed, the landscape of ancient bead collecting seems to be shifting.
During my tour in Bangkok in May 2023, I observed an unexpected trend. There
was a surge in highly-priced, counterfeit Indus beads on the market,
specifically tailored to meet Chinese demand.
This shift is quite intriguing. Not only does it indicate the growing
popularity and appreciation for Indus beads among Chinese collectors, but it
also underscores the unfortunate rise in the production and selling of fake
beads. It is a stark reminder of the challenges collectors face in
discerning genuine artifacts from cleverly crafted replicas.
As the market demand expands, so too does the incentive for counterfeiters
to produce fakes of a broader variety of bead types. This is a concerning
development, as it can mislead inexperienced collectors and devalue the
market for genuine ancient beads. As collectors, we must be vigilant and
educated to protect ourselves and the integrity of our passion.
My Precious One
The next question is: How can this massive scam continue apparently
without exposure? Of course, pure ignorance plays a major role, but
psychology is also at play. It's about desire... Too much desire clouds the
mind. The dealers are well aware that a significant percentage of their
beads are well-crafted new copies. I suspect that many buyers also know deep
down that the bead they purchased is a simulacrum and not the real thing,
but they don't want to know. They suppress their suspicion and make a
conscious effort to perceive the bead as genuine. This phenomenon, by the
way, is common with all kinds of ancient material.
How do I know this? I know because I recognize this trick of the mind from
my own experience!
Several years ago, I eagerly shared a photo of
an 'ancient' bead online, only to be chastised by a globally recognized
expert, who informed me that my cherished artifact was nothing more than a
modern imitation. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, I can
say without a doubt that he was absolutely correct. However, back then, I
dismissed this revelation, and in its place, anger welled up within me. I
found myself irrationally hostile towards the person who was merely stating
Even today, after all these years, I occasionally catch myself idealizing my
bead collection, pushing aside valid doubts. But I've found a way to balance
this innate folly with what I'd call meta-consciousness - a warm yet
slightly ironic self-awareness that acts as a GPS, guiding me when I stray
due to excessive greed. This meta-consciousness, by the way, is a product of
So, how can modern collectors of ancient beads navigate this landscape?
Here, I offer some tips, primarily aimed at Western collectors, given my own
background and experiences.
Embrace the Flawed Beads
The significant demand for immaculate, 'perfect' ancient beads comes
primarily from China. This very demand, however, provides Western collectors
with an advantage in discerning genuine artifacts from their counterfeit
The flawed, imperfect beads are often the genuine ones... The rest is the
product of unchecked greed.
A perfectly imperfect bead
MORE ABOUT SCARRED BEADS HERE
In the West, we share many of the same human
flaws as our Eastern counterparts, but our perspective on this particular
matter is different: We do not demand perfection in our ancient artifacts.
We do not fear the wrinkles, the cracks, or the scars. We appreciate the raw
energy of beads that have endured the test of time. We see them as metaphors
for heroes of our own culture, defined by their battle scars yet emerged
When I hold a nearly flawless bead in my hand, it feels lifeless, lacking
essence. In contrast, holding, feeling, and observing an ancient, naturally
scarred bead, I am filled with awe. It's as if the bead whispers tales to me
through its hole, recounting Silk Road stories it 'heard' at countless
caravanserais. The old bead stands as a nexus of human life. In contrast to
contemporary greed, it embodied faith in something transcendent, something
virtuous. It represented what the ancient Indians termed Satyam, Shivam,
Sundaram - The Truth, the Good, and the Beauty.
I think of the scarred bead in my hand, perhaps once worn by an enlightened
Buddhist monk. Another bead may have been passed down generations within a
family. Each bead holds its own unique story, full of life, history, and
I love these scarred old beads for their imperfections, as I love myself for
In summary, being a custodian of a scarred bead is a win-win situation. It's
likely not a fake, as it holds little value in China, and it brims with
And always remember... the bead will outlive you... you are but a fleeting
moment in the grand timeline of the bead's existence.
We are, in essence, custodians.
Final Words of Caution
Do not purchase ancient beads, especially DZI, unless you are absolutely
certain of their provenance! In the not-so-distant future, exact provenance
will be invaluable.
Be extra cautious when purchasing expensive beads that fall within the
sphere of Chinese perfectionism. Be especially wary of beads without scars
Good luck in your bead hunting journey!