With his long beard, faded T-shirt and jeans and string of beads, it would be easy to label 49-year-old Christopher England as just another aging hippie. In fact, England is an entrepreneur — a kind of ’90s version of a Medieval trader.
Like the itinerant merchants of olde, England spent 18 years traversing the world, buying and selling beads. Nowadays, however, he’s a little more settled. He runs his business — the traveling Intergalactic Bead Show (one of the top four bead trade shows in the country, drawing vendors from coast to coast) — from his office in Black Mountain.
Most folks think of beads strictly as ornaments, but England has, on occasion, bartered them for food, clothing, entertainment — and even dental repair. “My dentist still owes me dental work for a bead I traded him,” he says with a chuckle.
How did England — who attended Western Kentucky University on a track scholarship and later worked as a corporate data-processing consultant — evolve into a free-spirited bead trader?
“A longing for the good old days, [when things were] real,” he explains. By 1976, burned out on his computer-consulting job, England was dealing antiques part-time. “In the ’70s, it seemed to me everything being made was plastic, disposable: Use it today, throw it away tomorrow,” he muses.
At a flea market in 1980, England bought a shoebox full of interesting-looking beads — and he was hooked.
Eventually, he was invited by another serious bead trader to attend the Fur Trading Rendezvous, an elaborate, pre-1840s-style event founded by a group associated with Civil War battle re-enactments. “You sometimes have 3,000 participants who are eating, living and breathing this time period,” England explains. To accommodate the crowds, the event is held in a national park or private wilderness area.
These folks take their history pretty seriously, too. No modern materials of any kind are allowed, and that’s where the merchants and artisans step in: leather crafters, blacksmiths, moccasin makers, potters, seamstresses and, yes, bead traders.
“Some [participants] will spend $15,000 just on having an authentic outfit,” he recounts. His antique beads fit in perfectly, and England has become a fixture at the event.
England’s knowledge of the history of beads from different time periods and countries seems unlimited. Asking him a question is like opening an encyclopedia.
To begin at the beginning, he points out, you’d have to go back more than 40,000 years, to the time when humans began stringing objects together to hang around their necks. In many cultures, beads were believed to possess magical qualities and were used as amulets to aid in the search for food and shelter. As civilizations developed, the function of beads and amulets slowly evolved from talisman to ornament (or some combination of the two). In many civilizations, beads were used as currency.
Today, beads are enjoying a renaissance. There are about 80 bead societies in America alone — and more are forming all the time. This ever-growing group of enthusiasts encompasses both those who create their own beads and finished jewelry, and those who collect ancient beads for their historical significance.
At England’s Intergalactic Bead Show, the goods run the gamut from modern hot glass to historic Native American and African beads, chevrons, Islamic, pre-Columbian, Roman and Javanese amulets, and even the rare and sacred “dzi” beads, believed by Tibetans to be of supernatural origin.
Old, rare beads fetch large sums of money. In Africa, corpses are routinely exhumed by grave-robbers searching for valuable beads. “Almost all the beads in Africa are gone,” England notes. “Everything they’re getting there now is grave goods; the African bead runners will tell you that.”
For his part, England says he’s always waiting for someone to bring in a $100,000 bead (he mentions a single Tibetan dzi he heard about, which fetched $93,000).
When asked why he named his bead expo the Intergalactic Bead Show, England responds wryly: “All UFO sightings are a result of the bead trade. [The aliens are] not here to find intelligent life: They’re all bead traders.”