Glass tombodama beads swirl with Japanese style

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Glass artist Minori Takagi has distilled the wavy, stormy essence of West Coast beaches into a kumquat-sized bead. It's green-grey-blue, with a swirl of white like whitecaps and a sprinkle of fine gold like nighttime phosphorescence. Tiny smooth barnacles, made using the 600-year-old Italian millefiori technique, make it authentically B.C. It's the dream of the ocean that's left in your head after a really good Gulf Island camping trip or a hike up the Juan de Fuca trail.

      In other words, it's a whole world contained in something small enough to rest on a clavicle. And at $55, including the silver chain, the traditional Japanese tombodama is the ultimate souvenir of summer.

      And that's just one bead. Takagi has dozens, each its own little universe. When she sells at Portobello West (the next one takes place on July 29), she told the Straight in an interview at her studio, "Sometimes, someone tries on a bead, and it's their bead. It is for them."

      In Japan, which Takagi left a year ago, tombodama are all the rage. More affordable than paintings or sculptures, the beads are collected as art rather than as jewellery, she explained. But few Vancouver shoppers know much about the beads, she said, each one of which can take up to four hours to complete.

      The technique used to make tombodama originated in Mesopotamia 3,500 years ago. Over a flame, or "lamp", the artist melts glass around a metal bar and inlays other glass beads to make designs. The technology came to Japan via the Silk Road over a thousand years ago.

      Takagi, who is trained as a bookkeeper, learned how to make tombodama from a master in her hometown of Shizuoka 10 years ago. The best piece of advice he gave her: Don't sell your beads until you're good enough. So she didn't. From 1997, when she melted her first bar of millefiori, to 2003, Takagi's lamp work had strict hobby status. Now, the beads sell largely by word of mouth. A bank teller bought one from her at Portobello West a few months ago, she said, and now everyone at the branch has a tombodama.

      Edward Francis, Takagi's husband (and the reason she moved to Canada) warned that there are plenty of factory-made beads being imported to Vancouver.

      "Some can look and appreciate the difference, and some can't," he said simply.

      Though she's an innovator, Takagi stays firmly rooted in the aesthetics of her home country. Eschewing typical "pretty" colour palettes, she instead mirrors the fiercer beauty found in nature. Irises at night–which she remembers from her childhood backyard–adorn the bead she herself wears. Another bead softly echoes a lemon's creamy pith and bright flesh.

      Takagi described how she planned one rich bead infused with tiny handmade glass flowers in a swirl of dark grey and pink. "When making this one, I was imagining spring in Japan, the cherry blossoms falling down in a strong wind. It's usually getting humid, and we see them floating on the river."

      Currently, Takagi only sells the beads off fair tables, set on beds of rice in wooden boxes, and via her Web site ( .

      Watch for her this summer at markets on Bowen Island, at the Pride Parade, and at Portobello West.