What Color Is That? Part 3

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about determining the color of a bead. We’ve talked about the primary color and then the secondary color, and then I took a break because of the holidays. But now we’re back and ready to start talking about the complexities with figuring all this out.

The first issue is lighting.

Beads, like everything else in this world, change color depending on the light you’re in. So if you look at one bead in one type of lighting and another bead in another, that’s not really a good way to compare colors between beads. It also might not be the best way to purchase beads.

What I like to do for research is record the color of the bead under normal florescent lighting. That’s the sort of lighting you find in stores, in schools, and probably most places you’ll see beads. If you don’t have that, you can try an incandescent bulb for everything.

Same amber bead with LED backlight.

Same bead with LED backlight.

Amber bead from Scotland

Amber bead from Scotland

Then, I like to take out my iPhone and turn on the LED flashlight. I might look at the color with the LED light shining on the bead, but that’s not usually helpful and isn’t why I took it out. Instead, I shine the LED light behind the bead.


You’d be surprised how few translucent black beads are actually black. I’ve seen some that are actually hot pink when you shine a light through.

I use LED for this because it’s usually the strongest light source available, and for my research knowing the true color of particularly dark beads is helpful for figuring out the chemistry. You don’t really have to use an LED light yourself, but I prefer it.

Photo on 30-12-2014 at 19.40 #2Helpful tip if you use LED, particularly the one from your iPhone or other smartphone: point the flashlight sideways and hold the bead up to it. DO NOT place the flashlight directly behind the bead (like you see in the photo – I didn’t have enough hands), because chances are the bead is not large enough to cover the LED flashlight and you will end up blinding yourself. Sticking the flashlight sideways also gives a really good angle for spotting bubbles!


In my research, recording the color under florescent light and LED helps immensely. Many beads don’t really change (especially if they’re opaque), but many do, and often more than you think. You may never need this for beads incorporated into jewelry – when will the jewelry ever be back-lit by an LED light? – but it is terribly important if you’re making things like suncatchers or other window ornaments. Or if you’re like me and are into the science behind the manufacture.

There are some other problems like environmental factors (mostly for archaeology) or what you do with a polychrome bead, both of which I’ll talk about in the coming weeks. If there are any other issues with color you’ve found or questions you have about bead colors, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer them!


About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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3 Responses to What Color Is That? Part 3

  1. Pingback: Green Beads | Stringing the Past

  2. Pingback: Alert: Beads Can Change Color | Stringing the Past

  3. Pingback: Black Beads | Stringing the Past

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