Donkey Beads—Iranian and Egyptian Faience

Faience, the first synthetic silicate, was made almost exclusively for ornaments and amulets. It dates to the 5th millennium BC and is much older then glass, which arose about 1,500 BC. Other than the cylindrical and disk beads that are still made in Qourna, Egypt, possibly the only large faience beads being produced today are made in Qom, Iran. Known primarily to Westerners as “donkey beads,” these large, usually spherical beads are a brilliant blue. They are true faience beads, glazed by the cementation method, whereby the beads are first formed, then covered in the glazing powder and fired. Afterwards, the beads or other articles are broken free of this enveloping material. Their cores may consist of either steatite or quartz granules.

Recent photographs by German researchers have shown how such beads are made. A roll of the faience mixture is placed on a grooved board, then a matching corrugated board is pushed down on the mixture. As this tool is pulled back and forth, spherical beads are formed.

An array of faience amulets is also made by the Qom workshops. All such faience items are considered protection against the “Evil Eye,” and not only are these amulets worn by people, they are also hung on animals and vehicles.

9/27/2009 : 9/27/2009 modified

Contemporary Iranian and Egyptian faience donkey beads, showing the white quartz core.
Robert K. Liu