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Just as there have been collectors of ancient beads, there has been an underbelly of counterfeit production. But in recent years, a surge, a veritable tidal wave, of imitations has flooded the marketplace.

The driving force behind this surge is the rapidly growing community of Asian collectors, particularly those from mainland China. Their thirst for ancient beads has virtually vacuumed the market clean, leaving precious few genuine, high-quality ancient beads available for sale. The wellsprings that were abundant just a decade ago have all but run dry, with only lower-quality beads seeming to surface.

Yet, paradoxically, there's no shortage of 'ancient' beads adorning shop windows across Asia and the digital marketplace. Glance at the ancient bead market today, and you'll see one strand after another of pristine, high-quality beads, priced to the moon.

But how is it possible to have such a vast quantity of impeccable ancient beads, tailored to modern tastes? The population 2,000 years ago was a mere fraction of today's, and only the upper crust of that fraction could afford to own high-quality beads. Moreover, time would have left its mark on these beads, resulting in wear and tear and more than a few fractures.


Beads and

of Beads

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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 2021!
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 currency.

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 lesser DZI.

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 value.

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 importance.

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 intrinsically linked.

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 originals.

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 low price?

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 perfect!

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 the truth!

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 meditation.

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 counterparts:

The flawed, imperfect beads are often the genuine ones... The rest is the product of unchecked greed.

A perfectly imperfect bead


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 stronger.

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 travel.

I love these scarred old beads for their imperfections, as I love myself for mine.

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 natural magic.

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 or cracks.

Good luck in your bead hunting journey!








Contact: Gunnar Muhlman - Gunnars@mail.com