Robi Smallwood: Modern Take on an Ancient Craft

Robi Smallwood: Modern Take on an Ancient Craft         

Tara A. Spears

Local resident, Robi Smallwood’s artistic creation of glass beads reflect her individual creativity, style, technique and understanding of color. With no previous art training prior to retirement, she is discovering the satisfaction of working in the glass medium.

Although Robi is a transplant from Ontario, Canada, she and her husband have vacationed in Jaltemba Bay since 2000 before building a home in La Penita in 2008. An avid outdoor person, Robi loves the Mexican climate because of its many sunny days. Robi has succeeded in a variety of high pressure jobs so it is no surprise that she likes an active retirement. “I really enjoy the volunteering opportunities in La Penita plus having the time to indulge my creative hobbies,” said Robi. Besides dining out and traveling, she is excited about creating fused glass bead art. “My first love is the challenge of making beautiful glass beads. Moving into creating unique jewelry that incorporates my original beads is a natural outgrowth of this process.”

Traded globally for centuries, glass beads are among the earliest attempts at glass production and have been found in centuries’ old sites. The size of glass beads often belies their importance. Glass beads can represent wealth, symbolize gender and family relationships, or indicate social status, all through meaning signified in their color and patterning. According to Corning Museum of Glass data, “Symbolizing power, enabling ornamentation, and facilitating trade, glass beads are miniature masterpieces that have played significant roles throughout time and across cultures.”

Today’s glass bead art is the result of a combination of chance – that first piece of natural glass falling by accident into an open fire- coupled with a long history of innovation, development and refinement. According to master glass artist Anna Weller, “Through archaeological excavations and examination of early glass artifacts it is known that small open fires were used for all forms of early glass making. In time, small earth formed beehive furnaces were introduced. These primitive furnaces are known to have been used in ancient civilizations from Japan to North Africa, and probably dominated glassmaking prior to the birth of Christ.

The Romans took this basic beehive shaped furnace and refined it with the addition of exhaust, meanwhile also developing and refining glass working tools for shaping the glass that they produced. Glassmaking became a sophisticated and highly successful industry, with 600 years spent refining their techniques until they were adept at shaping glass, coloring glass, recycling glass and even removing color from glass untilit was clear.”

The glass bead making process today is almost unchanged from past centuries, with a flame still the only method used to melt glass rods. The principal difference today lies in changes to the delivery of that flame, with modern glass bead artists using a bead making torch that burns propane. Other bead making tools frequently used are: mandrels, which are stainless steel rods. Mandrels are the base upon which glass is wound to form a bead. The diameter of the bead mandrels determines the size of the bead hole. Glass rods of varying diameters and colors are the main ingredient that is melted down onto the steel rod to form the decorative bead.

Bead Artists use protective eyewear in the form of goggles. These essential special goggles have Didymium lens safety glass. Robi also uses a marver which is a heat resistant tool used to roll, press and shape hot beads. Lastly, Robi’s workshop includes a Temperature Ready Lampworking Kiln. This kiln like container can be used to gradually cool warm beads to ensure strength, durability, and to resist cracking of the final product. “It generally takes about an hour of hand turning to achieve the desired shape and to mix the colors for each bead,” explains Robi. “Next the bead is placed in the kiln for one hour at 950 degrees, then the temperature is reduced to 200 degrees for an additional three hours before the piece is removed from the kiln.”


Because soft glass-soda-lime glass- expands when heated and contracts when cooled, soft glass is far more prone to cracking through thermal shock. If, for example, a section of a bead cools too quickly that point will solidify faster than the surrounding glass causing a radial crack. Hard glass, or borosilicate glass, is more resilient to temperature change. Hard glass is considered to be far more forgiving to work with, but the downside to using hard glass is that it has a narrower working temperature range than soft glass, fewer color options, and hard glass rods are more expensive to buy. Robi says it is very frustrating to go through the process of making a bead with just the right color/design/shape only to have the bead come out of the kiln cracked.

Not only does Robi create beautiful glass bracelets and pendants, but she will make a custom order to meet the client’s needs. “I am presently making a set of memorial beads in which the ash is encased within the bead.” Check out her gorgeous jewelry- treat yourself for Christmas!  



You can contact Robi at 327 107 0427 or email:[email protected]

She also has her original designs at the La Penita Thursday tianguis.