Puzzling through Japanese drop seed beads

Today I went through the little groups of drop beads I have, trying to figure out what is what, and…it’s quite confusing. The good part is that I won’t actually need to order drop beads for a while. The not-so-great part is that when I do reorder them, I can’t be assured of getting the same type. My evidence for this is the fact that I ordered three packs of 2.8mm Miyuki mini fringe beads…and got two packs of 2.8mm Miyuki mini fringe beads, plus one pack of 3.4mm Miyuki fringe beads.

If you look several posts back, you can see that I was in the middle of a project which required drop beads…a lot of them. At the time, I was confused as to which drop beads I had. As an illustration…

Five different piles of beads rest on a blue velour background. 2.8mm Miyuki gold fringe beads are at the top, followed by two piles of 3.4mm Miyuki fringe beads. At the bottom are two different sizes of magatama beads, 4mm on the left, 3mm on the right.
Representative samples of the types of beads I’m talking about.

I thought that, in the image to the left (or just above, on mobile), the “4mm drops” (lower left: which I have seen referred to online as 4mm Miyuki Magatamas) were 3.4mm Miyuki drops, or, “fringe beads.” They aren’t. This confusion led me to order 2.8 mm drops as replacements (seen at the top of the image, in gold).

When I got the 2.8mm drop beads (which I’m very sure are Miyuki), I was surprised at how tiny they were. These are not the same beads I’m using for the project I’m on, now.

The drop beads I’m using for the circlet project are most likely 3.4mm Miyuki, “drop,” or, “fringe,” beads. These are represented by the rainbow dark topaz beads in the middle row, on the right of the picture.

When I look at the entire case, I’m not surprised why there is so much confusion about which drop beads come from what company. It appears that both Toho and Miyuki are using the term, “magatama,” for certain drop beads, although Toho’s magatamas seem to be largely specified as 3mm, and Miyuki’s magatamas as 4mm. This is not to get into Miyuki’s, “Long Magatamas,” which are an entirely different shape (not included here). In turn, there is a difference in shape between both 3mm and 4mm magatamas (on the bottom row); and Miyuki fringe beads (the top three samples in the above photo). That’s not to mention, Miyuki, “Long Drops,” which I’ve (also) not included, here.

The 3mm magatamas appear kind of like pressed, hard-boiled eggs, with a hole that’s slightly off-center, towards the narrower end. In contrast, the fringe beads are also wider, and have what I’d refer to as a, “heavier belly.” The 4mm magatamas are closer to the 3mm magatamas in shape, than to the fringe beads.

The term “magatama” just means, “curved bead,” and the term is still in cultural use in Japan outside of the seed bead world, so it’s possible that the term can’t be owned. (It’s also possible that it’s spelled differently in each case: there are at least two potential spellings, indications of which wouldn’t carry over into romaji, or pronunciation as transliterated in Roman [e.g., English] letters.) To attempt to shed a little light on this, I don’t think Intellectual Property law is as stringently followed in Japan as it is in the U.S. (if the doujinshi circuit is at all a clue).

It seems to be best to look at “magatama” as a descriptive term originating in Japanese language, and not necessarily as a trademarked brand name, as would be expected in the U.S. This is probably one of those intercultural things that doesn’t translate well. (Like, “no, it isn’t a trademark; it’s a descriptive term.“)

I would be remiss not to mention that I’ve seen other types of drop beads which can’t be cleanly categorized…one vial of which, I purchased from a supplier which never indicates brand; another vial of which, appears like a hybrid between Miyuki 2.8mm drops, and a miniaturized version of Toho 3mm magatamas. They both are very circular with off-center piercings, and one of them was so cheap ($1.50/10g) that it may have been an irregular (not to mention that quality drop beads are made outside of Japan, not least in Czechia…I remember seeing some like these somewhere online, but I don’t think I can track it down again).

Given that I’ve collected beads over years, it’s very possible that these aren’t even being made anymore…though I can keep my eye out for others like them.

Published by Haruna

Haruna is a Librarian by training, currently pivoting from Public Services into Technical Services. Their undergraduate major was English -- Creative Writing, and they hold an additional small degree in Art (i.e. Visual Arts). They are now pondering whether a career in Academia is viable or desirable, given the current situation.

3 thoughts on “Puzzling through Japanese drop seed beads

    1. Yeah — it’s really different to shop for things when one has to depend on a camera and computer to tell what one’s getting! I learned a long time ago that the color gamut of a computer screen can’t be trusted to represent all colors precisely as we would see them, in-person…

      It’s also nice to be able to pick out pastels to make sure the ones you are getting are not just the right color and value, but also freshness: I’ve had pastels dry out on me. (These were Rembrandts, I think?) When they’re fresh, they’re nice and creamy and draw on my hand by accident if I touch them. When they’re old, they don’t draw anymore (though they do indent the paper), and shatter like a plate when dropped.

      Buying art supplies online seems to be a bit of — if not a shot in the dark, a shot in twilight…

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