Mary O'Hare lifted a strand of pearls to eye level. Was it real or fake?
If real, the set of matched pearls would be worth thousands of dollars.
"Looking at it, I would say no," she said, raising the necklace to her mouth to test it. "And I'm right."
A true pearl feels gritty against the teeth, but a smooth one is generally an imitation, she said.
Ms. O'Hare turned her childhood fascination with rocks into a business, MB Jewelry & Beads in Aiken. Visitors can learn to craft one-of-a-kind jewelry out of semiprecious stones, freshwater pearls, bits of bone, seed pods, man-made clays or retro polymers in her one-on-one workshops.
The variety of beads and colors is attracting a growing number of women who want to express their own style without breaking the bank.
Michael's in Augusta has seen its classes for wannabe beaders expand in the past year, said Nancy Locklear, an instructor who is new to the craft.
She was drafted by a manager who was confident that her cake-decorating skills would transfer to beading. She agreed to learn it but only so she could teach it. That was several necklaces ago. Mrs. Locklear enjoys making and wearing her creations and seeing friends and relatives do the same.
When Del Brown started back to work last fall, she wanted to jazz up her stay-at-home-mom wardrobe. The jewelry she found in stores and online didn't impress her, she said.
At a friend's suggestion, she tried beading for the first time in early December. She was able to make matching sets of necklaces, bracelets and earrings for four of her co-workers at Christmas.
"I'm hooked," said Mrs. Brown, who loves beading for its economic and creative possibilities. She also recycles jewelry she finds at second-hand stores into her own designs.
After someone gets the basic stitches down (sewing beads together with a needle and thread) and starts combining them, the fun quotient increases, Ms. O'Hare said: It's relaxing and addictive.
She sees gemstones gaining in popularity because of the variety they offer in shape, color, luster and translucence.
Colors can be solid or variegated, veined or speckled with minerals.
Take jasper. With names such as fancy, paintbrush, landscape and picture, these stones are Mother Nature at her best, Ms. O'Hare said.
Women can use a classic black dress as a canvas, add color with jewelry such as peridot, tiger eye, turquoise, aquamarine, carnelian, amber, lapis lazuli, agate or rose quartz, and create various looks.
Freshwater pearls present more options. They are either round or irregularly shaped. Colors range from white to peach to mauve to black, with no assistance from technology. Bleached, they become white.
Stones can come drilled, polished, carved, faceted or rough-cut as nuggets. They can be strung with gold, silver, pewter, copper or brass spacers, adding a glint of metal.
Ms. O'Hare said she has always liked working with her hands. As a teenager in the 1970s, she crafted a lot with beaded macram. Her hobby became a source of pocket money in college. She did seed bead work and bead weaving, creating bracelets, necklaces, earrings and pictures.
She worked from traditional patterns learned from American Indians. The popularity of those designs was overtaken by the hippie and the flower power styles of the 1960s and 1970s, Ms. O'Hare said.
Delicate barely there styles emerged, to be swallowed up by bold pieces that were chunky, bright and colorful. Then came chokers and strands of opera-length beads.
Both had their adherents, ushering in the current era of highly individualized, personal styles.
"The trend is now - and has been for quite a while - that anything goes," Ms. O'Hare said.
Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAYS WITH BEADS
As hobbies go, working with beads has a low startup cost. It is also highly portable, said jewelry designer Mary O'Hare, who carries a week's worth of projects in a small cosmetics bag. Before you buy a lot of supplies, though, she suggests that you sit down and string a bracelet or necklace to try it.
A little creativity, the ability to follow directions and the desire to create something is all you need to start. Observing what other people are wearing, looking at magazines, or using a color wheel or even a box of crayons can help crafters coordinate colors and designs.
Mary O'Hare's Web site: mbjewelryandbeads.com
Mineral Information Institute: mii.org/commonminerals.php
International Colored Gemstone Association: gemstone.org/index.html