PASSION AND PErFECTION - The SikolAS
It was the second last day of a long and exhilarating trip. The Christmas Markets in Munich and Prague were beyond our wildest expectation. In Pils. the home of Pilsner beer, Charlie and I met Olympic curling qualifiers from six countries at breakfast in our hotel. Our driver/ guide/translator Richard managed to get us on the calendars of every bead and button maker I knew to see in Jablonec. We even had the chance to impress him by introducing him to the Nikl’s , when Lenka , the Czech wholesale importer I buy from, arranged for us to meet the wonderful couple responsible for my Goddess beads. When Richard insisted we stop to see some bead-making friends of his, we figured we were simply indulging him for being such a great guide. We couldn’t possibly see or do any more…
When we walked into the living room/showroom of Beads Czech SRO Charlie’s eyes went right to the plate of homemade cookies the Sikola family had out to greet us. But I felt like I was back in fourth grade seeing Bobby Sherman in concert — my knees buckled , I couldn’t believe I was actually there and for an (albeit brief) moment , I couldn’t speak. I saw in one place virtually every exceptional Czech glass bead I had purchased in the past decade. Until that moment I had no idea they were all made by the same small family operation. After 10 days of exceptional beauty being an everyday occurrence, I was slack-jawed.
Jiri, his wife Ivana, and their children Jiri, 23, and Eva, 20, were as warm and welcoming as their work was exceptional. Poor Richard spent the next couple hours trying to keep up with the translation of my excited non-stop stream of questions and the unexpected beginning of our Boho Bizon. I have much to write about them here and elsewhere. But here’s a start.
A family affair
Jiri started his career at 18 making the machinery that makes the beads. The better he got at his job, the more he saw where the process could be tweaked to create a product of exceptional quality. It wasn’t a matter of creating shortcuts, in practice he would often add additional time and steps to the process. But his mechanical knowledge of the process combined with a natural bent for design and color presented an exciting challenge to him. Ivana, a designer and artist in her own right, believed in her husband’s vision and their business started in the basement of their home.
This meant open flame and heavy machinery alongside hearth and home with a toddler. It resulted in panic when their then two-year old son Jiri wandered away from an upstairs babysitter one evening. You can still hear the residual fear in Ivana’s voice as she tells the story . As she ran down the stairs to tell her husband Jiri was missing she spotted them both - Jiri on his father’s lap his small hand over his father’s pressing the button that cuts facets in racked beads. Young Jiri sees that as his first day of work.
In reality, he was only allowed to do small chores and serve as a general assistant , always hounding his father to do more. At 13, he was finally permitted to start learning the process. He is able to attack each step of the exacting process with this father’s precision and artistry. “He’s quite handy now,” he father says with a teasing smile. “Now I can leave him on his own.”
Ivana still contributes to their product aesthetic while handling the substantial administrative aspects of the business. Eva, 20, is primarily focusing on her college studies — and claims her English skills are weak. But her translation assistance and enthusiastic emails from the first we met her have been invaluable . Charlie would add she also makes a mean cookie.
The unique style of beads Jiri and Ivana created grew their business quickly — and drew the attention of local small factory competitors who could not imitate their style but quickly copied their shapes and undercut their cost with less exacting processes. They found their time was consumed with legally defending their designs and supervising a couple dozen employees. It wasn’t what they wanted.
“It’s windy at the top of the mountain,” Jiri explained. He and Ivana recognized they had to rescale their business model to create the beads they loved. “ I like it much better on the hillside.”
DOING LESS BETTER
Jiri and Ivana recognized the advent of internet sales could push them beyond local competition and allow them to produce a smaller number of top-quality, speciality beads for a handful of discerning buyers willing to pay a premium price.
Today they have only a few employees who assist during the highest production times.. They work with my friend Lenka and a handful of others in United Kingdom and Japan. They sell directly through their website — which offers an limited selection frequently sells out of new product when its posted on Thursdays,
And they get to do what they love to do, the way the want to do it.
I spent a few hours walking through the processes in the frame house that is now their business address (they still have some production capacity in their home basement for peak times).
Jiri walked me through 14 steps of their distinctive table cut (referred to as “special cut” with our bizons) - before he apologized for needing to leave out a few steps out of the narrative— the difference between their table cut beads and all others. These steps are one of the two factors that made the difference I couldn’t explain, but could feel every time I had previously encountered their beads in the U.S. I simply hadn’t realized that all of Lenka’s best beads came from this simple frame house and these incredible people.
Their pride and skill are obvious, and their enthusiasm is infectious, but their other secret weapon awaited us outdoors.
THE GLASS STASH
The Sikolovas are an active and athletic family - hiking and biking on their winter and summer holidays and engaging in a variety of sport year around.
Thus it only makes sense that young Jiri was biking in the mountains about 80 km from their home when he spotted a small farm with a unique fence made of glass rods. He called his father immediately.
Their region had been the “bijouterie to the world “ - the leading producer of glass beads and buttons through the 1800s and early 1900s. There had been more than 700 glass-related businesses in an area whose population never greatly exceeded the current count of about 50,000 people. The community prospered through the shifting fortunes of Bohemian regents and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, peaking at the end of the First World War. The glass industry was immediately challenged by the emergence of Nazi aggression. In 1938 the region was made part of the Sudentenland under the Munich Pact. Jews, Czechs and anti-Nazi Germans largely fled the area until the town was liberated in 1945. By 1948 , a Communist coup opened a new chapter of state control of arts and business. Materials were seized and the largest bead factory was operated for the state with prison labor. Many small family operations hid their molds and glass rods on their property never to return to claim them. Communist control ended with the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
The obvious result in Jablonec was the shrinking of the proud glassmaking tradition. Less obvious was the standardization of glass colors and rods which are now only available in specific colors on a rotating annual schedule from the large factory that was again privatized. Part of what pushed Jiri to learn to do more with finish and process were the unavoidable limitations of color.
But on his rural bike trek, young Jiri recognized pre-war glass making rods - being practically pressed into service as fence posts by owners who had no idea of their previous use. When his father arrived with a large van, the pair made a fair offer to buy the glass and build a new fence. The van was so loaded with top-quality glass rods that they both held their breath when they had to brake abruptly fearing a quick shift of the large load would send the glass past them into a sparkling, shattered heap.
In the heady times these rods were created there was more competition for excellence, greater variety of materials and - less regulation. “The recipe for making blue glass has changed over the years. Rods are shorter and colors are not as rich,” Jiri explained. Father and son saw colors and combinations they never dreamed possible . No one else can produce these hues today.
An untrained eye like mine can’t really see the difference in the rods, but like the “extra steps”, it’s obvious in the final product, another layer of wow.