Heaven's Beads - DZI Beads Explained
Knowledge of ancient DZI beads is derived from oral traditions. Few other beads have provoked more controversy concerning their source, and how they were created. This all gives rise to one of the most interesting and unique beads on earth.
Tibetans have never allowed Archaeological digs in Tibet, so no accurate field dates have been established. DZI beads were believed to be seen for the first time between 2000 and 1000 BC, where Tibetan soldiers brought them back from Persia during a raid. Sometimes farmers would find beads in the ground or in their soil (probably dropped by the soldiers) and because of that, people believed that DZI beads were naturally formed instead of man-made. The actual true origin of the beads is still unknown to this day.
The Tibetan word "dzi" can be translated to "shine, brightness, clearness, splendor." In Mandarin Chinese, they are known as Heaven's Beads or Heaven's Pearl. Central Asian and Tibetan cultures believe DZI beads can benefit spirituality and positive spiritual experiences, and they can be a protector of energy and physical space. People back then fiercely believed in the negative effects of the "evil eye" and DZI beads were used to counteract and protect against that. Long ago they were sometimes ground up and used in medicines.
There is a lot of speculation about how the original DZI was etched because the modern technology of heating beads in a vacuum chamber was not available at the time. One theory is the stones were heated at an extremely high altitude where the air is much thinner than lower altitudes resulting in less expansion. Tibet is the highest altitude country on the planet so this theory seems plausible.
Since DZI beads are typically made of agate and agate is porous, it contains air and moisture within the stone which, when heated, expands and causes the stone to crack. In a vacuum the air has been removed which greatly reduces the chance of cracking. This technology was not available 100 years ago in remote Tibet. It certainly was not around thousands of years ago, hence the mystery of how they were made.
The process of marking DZI beads is also interesting. After the bead was shaped, it was baked with sodium carbonate which gives the stone a white ashy look. Sodium carbonate is currently used in the manufacture of glass, paper, rayon, soaps, and detergents. The pattern of the eyes and lines were marked out in wax and when the wax hardened, the beads were soaked in a sugar or chemical solution until the solution had seeped into the porous surface of the stone where it had not been covered in wax. The stone was then baked again, burning the sugar within the stone and turning it a brown color.. This method was somewhat hit and miss as the density of agate varied greatly, allowing different amounts of the solution to penetrate. This gave rise to variations in the depth of color of the markings, a problem still happening today with the modern 'DZI' style beads.
DZI beads with a phenomenon called "blood spots" are more rare and sought after by collectors. They have red iron-rich markings among the white parts of the bead. Another sought after effect is called "Nāga skin" which is when the surface of the bead is textured almost like scales. That texture comes from weather and time.