In our rush to find a good factory, we were approaching it the wrong way. All our running around looked from the factory's viewpoint like we were trying to learn their methods and copy the way they do business. The problems we had trying to find these elusive factories all went away after we followed this latest factory boss to his "factory" and bought some beads. I say "factory" because it was actually the converted first floor of his townhouse. The living room, dining area, and spare bedroom were all torn up and polishing and grinding machines were placed there. The upstairs was also changed to a stringing and packaging area. It was a cacophony of shirrizing, twipzzing and grrrrirrring as the glass was polished and ground down to the lovely beads we wanted.
He pointed to a big pile of beads unceremoniously bagged in grocery plastic. This was his factory's weeklong production pile. The beads were all strung in about 72 pc strands and knotted into 10 strand hanks, then big knotted into 100 strand bunches and 5 bunches created one bag of 500 strands. We checked each hank to make sure the quality was about the same. Some of them were quite poor, so we were only able to pick about 3000 strands that night. But now we had a problem - how do we get these 72pc strands into our mainly 8 inch strand units?
After the factory boss gave us and our newly purchased goods a ride back to the hotel, we quickly washed and went to sleep. The next day was going to be another crazy one.
The grinding and polishing doesn't stop at night, so we had to learn to sleep with the constant din of a 24 hour industry. The next morning, we went straight to the plating factory and picked a few choice colors to start plating the strands we bought the day before. Apparently the formulas are based on the metal they put into the machine, the time, temperature, humidity etc.. They couldn't promise me that they could make the dark copper that I requested. I told them to go ahead and try. We had over 3000 strands for them to do, so it wasn't a big deal. The plating boss told us they had never heard of customers who "experiment" with that sort of quantity. I told her it was our duty to our customers to get everything just right to the best of our abilities. She walked away smiling and mumbling something that sounded like "crazy... little .. boy..."
After that we were able to find many other factories. Word seems to spread like wildfire and soon we had quite a few factory owners coming up to us at the plating factory to offer us their wares. One factory was run by a young man not quite 25 years old, but his parents were the ones that actually did most of the big decision making. He drove us over to his factory in his new Audi SUV and showed us the 20-30 machines they had going all at once.
A Crystal Bead is Born...
The first machine was a shaper. It takes the glass rods with the holes in them and grinds them down to a little bit larger than the size of the desired glass beads. These are very fast and powerful machines that cut up to 12-20 beads at a time and from one cane you can make multiple sets of beads. This is the way to make the smaller beads that are all uniform in size.
The rods are fed into this shaping machine that grinds out perfect rondelles for the size of bead they are making. There are multiple teeth on this machine, so they can cut up to a dozen beads at a time.
The actual polishing requires a complicated set of "teeth" planting machines and polishing wheels. The rows of metal tubes of filled with the rondelle beads ground down from the shaping machine. Each one is then cemented in with an epoxy/resin mix. The rows of teeth are then taken to a polishing machine with a giant wheel on the bottom that's spinning very fast. The rows of teeth are then placed facing downwards and gently lowered until the rondelles are touching the spinning wheel. Every tube in the row of teeth then rotates so that the bead can get facets on each side. Once it has completed one entire circle around the bead, the entire row of teeth is angled (controlled by computer) and a new circle of beads at a different latitude of the bead is exposed to the grinding wheel. This repeats until the entire half bead is covered in sparkly facets.
The machine shop - each station has 2-3 machines and they consist of a placing machine and a polishing machine. Usually the teams are made up of a couple since the profit motive is strongest when the people are in the same family.
This is the placement machine that sticks the beads into the row of rod like teeth. That entire row is then detached like a bunch of dentures and taken to the polishing machine. Each "tooth" can rotate independently, so they all turn.
The half polished beads are removed (with fire) from the rows of half polished teeth and then all the beads are flipped upside down in their little metal tube stems so that the unpolished half is exposed. The entire process is repeated and the beads are now completely polished. There's a lot of residual glue on the sides of the beads and they have to be boiled and sonic washed in order to be clean enough to wear. Often times they may have to even be pressure cooked to get the glue out of the holes. Each batch is then sorted for quality problems.
Most of the ones that don't look right are simply thrown away. This factory then showed us 2-3 workstations with literally bins full of rejected beads. These were then shipped off to some of the large garment factories in China to be added to shoes and other items where quality didn't matter as much. Some factories actually string up all their rejects and sell them for a discount. We were horrified when some factories offered us discounts if we were to accept a 5-10% rejects mixed into our strands. They say that customers won't see the difference. I think the factory owners probably haven't really done much business with the US.
Near sighted or far sighted, when it comes to beads, all our customers seem to have 20/20 vision. So those factories obviously got crossed off the list. The factory we were visiting told us that they will accept any returns if we found them to be of a lower quality than they advertised. They also showed us some of their washers and stringing areas, which we weren't allowed to photograph. We are also not allowed to share the exact methods they use for stringing and final polishing since they are trade secrets, but overall, we left with a sense that we had finally found one of the factories we wanted to work with long term. They were very sincere, very well organized, and seemed trustworthy, all of which were a rarity on this trip. We placed a sizable order with them - large enough to keep them busy for over a month and went back to relative peace and quiet of our hotel rooms.
Then out comes a bead! It's cleaned in an ultrasonic washing machine, dumped on a sorting table, strung up and shipped to our processing center. They go through our own QC and packaging again and then shipped to our MD warehouse.