Mardi Gras bound? Learn about beads before you head to New Orleans

Mardi Gras bound? Learn about beads before you head to New Orleans
January 19, 2010
By Laura Ricks

More than 7,000 miles and a vast cultural chasm lie between New Orleans and south China, but there is also a strong thread joining the two places.
The Times-Picayune Archive
Millions of Mardi Gras beads are produce each year in China.
It’s a thread strung with beads.
So though the workers who produce most of the beads for Mardi Gras have no idea that masked revelers toss those beads free of charge to crowds of strangers, they do wear purple, green and gold.
The Chinese workers who produce the beads believe the beads they are producing are considered real jewelry here and that people shop for the necklaces in jewelry stores. And, according to their bosses, they would be terribly hurt to find out otherwise.
“The owners of the factory have asked me numerous times not to tell the workers that we throw their things into the street,” said Dan Kelly, owner of Beads By The Dozen, a major supplier of Mardi Gras throws who buys most of his beads from one factory. “The owners said it would hurt their pride. And then they worry that would result in poorer quality.”
When Krewe of Muses founders Staci Rosenberg and Virginia Saussy traveled to China with Kelly in 2004 to learn more about throws, they were told the same. “They said it would hurt their feelings,” said Rosenberg, the krewe’s captain.
However, not all of the people producing the beads are ignorant of what goes on at Carnival. Last year Kelly arranged for the factory managers to ride in Endymion.
“I brought them here so that they could get an idea of what Mardi Gras was all about and help create new throws,” said Kelly. “They had a ball. They couldn’t believe what went on.”
That experience helped them get more creative, according to Kelly.
Industry & inspiration
The innocence as to where the goods go is perhaps not as surprising when you consider how massive the Chinese export business is. Mardi Gras throws are a small component of that trade, as epitomized by the China Import and Export Fair.
Held twice a year since 1957, the fair showcases goods as varied as small vehicles, agricultural products, textiles, medicines and consumer goods. With close to 30,000 booths, representing more than 13,000 companies from a variety of countries, the fair is one of the main places buyers go to get ideas for throws.
And according to Saussy, Mardi Gras beads encompass a very small area.
“A few booths have grown into doing just Mardi Gras beads,” said Saussy, “but we were looking at all the toys and novelties to get ideas for throws. Staci would walk down the aisles and look to the left and I would look the right. It’s hard to explain how large it is until you see it. We’d see things and think how to use it. We got inspired by how many things are made there.”
That inspiration has helped the all-female Krewe of Muses keep a reputation for innovative throws.
For instance, Rosenberg and Saussy like throws that offer instant gratification, such as this year’s glitter powder puff, which they believe people will love. They also like useful items such as the toothbrushes and pedicure sets from past years.
Make-up items have proven problematic because Rosenberg won’t stand for anything that smells odd — one reason why the glitter powder puff took three years to come to fruition from the time Saussy and Rosenberg first envisioned it in ’04 at the fair.
“I still remember that soap that had such a bad smell,” said Rosenberg of an earlier throw.
Creative thinking also helped the krewe develop a plush spear after bamboo spears were banned and to take customized throws to a new level.
“Muses is bringing in 25 items that are logoed this year,” said Kelly. “That’s unheard of!”
Muses members like the idea of pushing the other krewes to new levels of innovation, but are willing to share ideas.
“We try to do something that no other krewe is doing,” said Saussy. “But as long as we get an exclusive the first year, we’re fine with others doing it. We want to help create new Mardi Gras traditions.”
Kelly agrees. “Muses has definitely raised the bar,” he said. “I spend a lot of hours finding items for them, making sure they are getting quality items and making sure the ladies get something new. They ask for new things every year. Muses is very exciting.”
The Times-Picayune Archive
New Orleanians use beads well beyond Carnival season. Here a fence is bedazzled in leftover Mardi Gras beads.
Beady eyes
Czechoslovakia was the leading exporter of Mardi Gras throws up until the 1960s when China took over. Kelly first started going there in 1987 and he now brings in 225 40-foot containers, or approximately 8 million pounds of plastic a year. And over the years, he has seen many changes.
“From the 1970s until now, there might have been 50 styles of machine-styled beads,” he said. “As Mardi Gras got more sophisticated, we started creating plastic and polystone medallion beads. Now that has transformed into lighted beads. Lighted items in general have taken off.”
As for what is and is not popular, Kelly, who goes out among parade crowds to hear what people are saying, ticks a list off: “Doubloons have died off. Cups are still popular — Endymion’s going to throw five different kinds. And plush is getting more popular, but it’s got to have the logo on it.”
And though Mardi Gras beads may be a small component of China’s exports, the market for them here is growing. Kelly said they have become a year-long staple at events as varied as the Kentucky Derby and Spring Break and used by companies such as Budweiser as promotional items.
At the factory
That kind of prevalence also means more scrutiny of conditions where beads are produced, especially in light of recent Chinese import scares. Kelly said he has been testing his products for the last six to seven years to make sure nothing dangerous hits the streets at Mardi Gras.
“I do two private testings — one domestically and one in China,” he said. “We test every item before we ship it. And nothing has ever come into the country that was bad.”
Given the liability and bad publicity that large corporations would engender by distributing unsafe beads made under poor working conditions, Kelly said, two such companies, Disney and Universal Studios, have even audited the factory where the beads are produced. Both companies gave it passing marks for the way the beads are produced and the workers treated.
When Rosenberg visited, she too took a look at the conditions of the factory. “The workers come from all over and live on site,” she said. “It’s an industrial center. They have nice dormitories and though it’s not like here, I saw nothing to cause us any concern.”
In fact, she and Saussy were pleasantly surprised to see the workers wearing purple, green and gold.
Kelly agreed. “When I first saw that, I thought they were just trying to impress us,” he said. “But I’ve gone back without them knowing I was coming, and that’s what they were wearing.”
As for the number of people working to produce beads, Kelly said approximately 300 people work at the plant during the regular season, bumping up to about 400 in the weeks before Mardi Gras to handle the extra work.

How beads are made
The actual bead-making process takes 90 to 100 days.
First, a plastic mold is manufactured. During the machine-tooled process, plastic is injected into the mold, forming the bead. From there, it is sent to the metallizer, where color is added. An employee then pulls the bead out, a length that Dan Kelly said can be as long as half a mile, and cuts it to the appropriate size.
In the next step, the two ends of the bead are fused together and any extra items, such as a medallion, are added. The beads are then hand-stapled into groups and bagged. From there, they are loaded into containers and shipped to the United States, with shipping taking 21 to 24 days.
As Staci Rosenberg says, “It’s not a highly mechanized process.”
So this Mardi Gras, be sure to appreciate the beads hanging around your neck. Better yet, pick up the ones in the street. There’s a lot of work and pride involved in the making of both.
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