Millefiori is a unique glass technique. When translated from Italian, millefiori means “thousand flowers”. In the 15th century, the millefiori technique of glass bead making was developed in Milano, Italy, but it was not used in the United States until the 1850’s. The alternate polymer clay technique is more recent.
One traditional millefiori glass bead making method involves the heating and layering of murrine glass rods or canes. There are two basic techniques used to make these beads. One is with the use of a mold with a preset pattern. The heated or molten glass is put on an iron rod called a pontil, then the heated glass is dipped into the mold. They cool it and the process is repeated over and over again, until the design is completed.
In the next step, the canes/rods are reheated and an iron rod is attached to each end this time, instead of just one end. While the glass is still hot the glass has to be stretched and pulled, but it takes two people to do this step, one on either end of the glass, each holding a iron rod. It is a bit like pulling taffy, but more precise. This step has to be done quickly. The more bundles there are, the more intricate the design in the millefiori beads.
The alternate first step in making millefiori beads, is to gather a group glass rods of different colours which are then fastened together by a mold or wires and then the rods are melted together to form one rod and the process is repeated until the desired design is achieved. Then the second step of stretching the heated glass is used.
After one of the two millefiori bead techniques used is completed, the canes are sliced and the design that has been created in the bead, can be seen in the cross section of the cut.
The technique is also used to make other glass wares including the trademark glass flower paperweights, which are prized and collected worldwide.
Technically shapes and other designs are not millefiori, since they aren’t flowers, but a vert similar method is used to make other shapes within the glass or polymer beads such as trees, human faces and shapes, or hearts, plants or animals.
There are even candy companies that use the same technique used in making millefiori beads and polymer clay beads, to make taffies with little pictures in the middle.
Today there is another way to make beautiful and intricate beads using a very similar technique, but instead of glass millefiori, there are now polymer clays. Glass millefiori is still being made. The polymer clays are easy to find in craft stores and come in every imaginable colour. Additionally the colours can be mixed to create other ones.
The process involves rolling and combining polymer clay canes or rods instead of glass and although it is still a somewhat labor intensive process, particularly if more intricate designs are made, it is a craft that anybody with the patience to try it can do.
One long roll of polymer canes can make quite a few clay beads for earrings, bracelets and so forth.
There is no need to heat and reheat the polymer clay for each layer added, the heat of your hands is what keeps the clay pliable while you are working with it.
The longer you roll the strand of polymer canes, the more beads you can make.
You can also choose the width of the beads more easily this way too. The more the clay is rolled and stretched out, the thinner the final beads will be.
The heating in this variety of millefiori comes after all the beads are made and sliced from the cane loaf. Any holes for the beads to be threaded through later, need to be made in the beads at this point of the process, before being baked.
They are then placed on a baking pan and can be heated in a regular oven to bake and solidify them.
Another nice thing about this variety is that children can also make and create their own pieces of jewelry using polymer clays.
The intricate detail possible with millefiori beads and polymer clay is amazing. It just takes patience and time to do.