For the love of beads
AT 93, JOHN BURKE will be showcasing his jewelry designs at San Francisco Arts and Crafts this Friday and Saturday.
He’s 93, and his closets are full of boxes of beads. His shelves are lined with neatly labeled boxes, remnants of an obsession his wife launched long ago.
John Burke’s late wife, Gladys, first fell in love with beads when she was a 13-year-old living in Modesto and saw long strands of yellow beads hanging out of a neighbor’s trashcan.
“She went to her neighbor and asked her if she was throwing away the beads,” said Burke. “The neighbor said she could have them if she wanted them.”
Young Gladys snatched up the tiny treasures, not realizing it was the catalyst for a lifelong fixation. For the rest of her life, she would hunt for beads – across various cities and countries – finding any and all shapes and colors that appealed to her.
“When we married in 1962, she came with all these boxes of beads with her,” Burke said with a laugh. Gladys didn’t do anything with the beads in particular, she just liked to have them, tucked away in the closet in boxes with hand-written labels reminding her where the beads came from. They were an omnipresent addition to the couple’s life.
“When we went to Texas, the beads went to Texas with us,” Burke said.
Sixteen years into their marriage in 1978, Burke had enough. He wanted to see the beads go to use, after decades of sitting in wait. “I said to her, ‘What are you going to do with all these beads?’” Burke recalled, adding that she was quick to turn the tables on him. “She said, ‘I don’t know, why don’t you see what you can do with them.’”
Challenge accepted. Burke began to search antique stores, flea markets and estate sales for pendants and other statement pieces that caught his eye.
He’d then come home and search through Gladys’ massive collection for the right beads to compliment the piece, and string together a necklace on flexible stainless steel wire. At first, he gave everything to his wife.
“She said, ‘I think you’ve made me 24, I don’t need anymore.’ I think that’s the only reason I thought of selling them,” he joked.
He began selling them on consignment at a variety of Plaza boutiques, but found the most success at old-fashioned Tupperware parties. Friends and family would throw afternoon parties where Burke would showcase his work. He clearly remembers the first event. “We had hoards of people and I sold $7,000 of jewelry in an afternoon. Those parties were where I had the most success.”
Burke will share dozens of items from his 34 years as a bead artist during a trunk show Friday and Saturday, July 20 and 21, at San Francisco Arts and Crafts, the bead and jewelry store at 546 Broadway. Store hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and most of Saturday, Burke will be on hand to greet visitors and discuss his prolific work.
“I number each piece, and I think I just finished number 2,012,” he said.
The trunk show was originally scheduled for last month, but just days before it was slated to take place, Burke fell and broke his hip. After a full hip replacement and a few weeks of recovery, the beader is ready to share his work, including some pieces made after his surgery.
“I made all of these while I was in recovery,” he said looking over a dozen or so pieces hanging in his work area.
His modest Merrill Gardens apartment is a shrine to the three loves of his life: family, music and beads. He and his wife both had long careers as choir directors, and Burke still plays piano every Sunday at the Trinity Episcopal Church. Hanging off the lampshade in his living room are four necklaces he made Gladys that he can’t yet part with, two of which are made with pendants from Afghanistan that the pair found on one of their vacations.
“We’d travel to exotic places and she’d look for beads and I’d look for pendants,” he said.
Nearly two years after his wife passed, Burke still continued his passion for jewelry, continuing to make each piece by hand despite his decreased dexterity over the years. One of his favorite pastimes is attending bead fairs where items from across the globe are available, although he jokes that he can often get into trouble.
“I think I spent $100 at the first table I saw at the last bead show,” he said with a gleam in his blue eyes.
He said over the years his design sensibility has stayed the same – he is most attracted to the avant-garde and likes to take random items, such as brooches, belt buckles, napkin rings and tie clips, and repurpose them into pendants.
“I am addicted,” he acknowledged, adding that the whole thing is his wife’s fault. “She loved everything that was beautiful.”
Find more of John Burke’s work at his website theeagerbeader.com.