French Beaded Immortelle

A French Beaded Immortelle

“Immortelle” is a French word that means “everlasting.” In the world of French Beaded Flowers this term refers to the beaded Mourning Wreaths – or Couronnes de Mortuaire – that were popular in Europe during the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. These incredible creations were large beaded flower displays that were usually used as a memorial for someone who had passed on.

While there are many shapes and forms for Immortelles, generally they feature a display of beaded flowers in the center, with bead-wrapped metal framing around or under the flowers. Some had no framework, but were simply beaded bouquets with a bead-wrapped stem that hung on a wall. Some had glass domes with images or figurines inside. Some had beaded words attached to the framing. Immortelles made for adults were usually large – some were 4 feet tall! – while those made for children were smaller and often featured a small angel or cherub figurine.

They were made in Italy, Germany, and France in small cottage industries. The workers were usually women and children who made the flowers in their own homes – though some also believe that prisoners were used to make them. But the wreaths themselves may have been assembled in factories. In his first book, “Flower Forever: Bead Craft from France and Venice,” Ragnar Levi teaches that some European countries actually had schools that taught women how to make beaded flowers, and those women were then employed by the factories to make Immortelles and other such beaded flower displays.

Since French Beading has been such an important part of my life, naturally I’ve always wanted to own a French Beaded Immortelle, but they are so gosh darn expensive! The larger, more intricate ones are usually $600-800. Maybe someday. A couple years ago I purchased a smaller French Beaded Reliquary made by nuns in Bavaria, Germany somewhere around 1880. I was going to link to my blog post about it, but, looking back at my blog posts, I can’t find it and I’m wondering if I never posted about it! That seems very odd for me. So, just in case I’ll share those pictures again… This particular one is 9×8 inches. It features an image of Christ with a wreath of very well preserved antique beaded flowers. Probably in such good condition due to the glass dome that covers them. The framing is made of metal wrapped with beads.

And, just recently, a woman who restores French Beaded funeral wreaths posted on Instagram that she needed to sell some to make more room in her studio. This particular one is one that I had seen and admired and dreamed of before. She allowed me to use her image of it in a presentation that I did for a bead society. So when I saw that it was available, I jumped at the opportunity and now I own an Immortelle. Mine is a smaller one, and a different style than most. Instead of the typical framework around the flowers, the one I have has a beaded “basket” shaped frame below the flowers. It also has a stand that folds out, so it can be displayed standing or hanging. I’ve never seen an Immortelle quite like this one. The seller (Cynthia from Esse Vintage) says that some of these types of displays may have been used for weddings or to celebrate a new baby. Perhaps, since this one is so different, it was meant for happier occasions. But the coloring is typical of many Immortelles, so who knows? Maybe it was just a different style. Either way, I’m calling it an Immortelle just to keep things simple.

Here she is! More details below the images.

This one measures 2 x 2 feet. The flowers and leaves are made in the typical French Beading method using a variety of white beads on wire. The wire has darkened and turned black, though I imagine it was probably a lighter color when it was brand new. The flowers are assembled using a light golden colored embroidery floss, which is still in good condition, considering it’s age. The flowers are all gathered together into a bouquet with a single stem. The framework below the flowers is made of beads wrapped around metal wires, which were then sewn together with more wire into curls and waves and zig zags to make the basket shape.

This may sound a bit sappy and weird to some of you, but while I was examining this piece to take in all the details and photograph it, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of a connection to those who made it. This piece was made somewhere around 1900, so the people who worked on this one are long gone, but this wondrous creation they made still exists. Each row of beads was handled by a real person who lived over a hundred years ago working in one of these factories. I know how it feels to wrap rows of beads into petals, so I can imagine their hands working much like mine do. Did they ever consider that a hundred years from now, this petal or leaf they were making would still be around? That someone like me might keep this piece in a personal collection to admire? Did they take pride in their work, like I do? Was it just a way for them to provide for their families? Did they relish beading every petal, or were they rushing through to meet a quota? Maybe a bit of both. There’s something so beautiful about creating art, and I certainly hope those who worked on this one felt the same kind of joy making them that I do making my flowers.

I get a lot of questions about my photography set-up, and I thought you would get a little kick out of seeing this one. This piece was a little more frustrating to photograph than most of my work, simply due to it’s size. While I love my home, it’s not really set up to have a photograph-able area. My walls are white, and the immortelle is white, so that wouldn’t work. And I’m just not “extra” enough to paint a wall for a photo. I only have a couple photography backgrounds that are a suitable size for things this large – one white and one black. Since the object is white, I had to go with the black one so it would pop. But, they are made of velvety material that attracts every speck of dust you could imagine and with folds and creases. Anyways, here’s a little behind-the-scenes look at how I had to set up my background to photograph this one. I had to use canned goods as weights so the wind didn’t blow the edges up, then add some lounge chairs and clips to hold up the back. And yes, there was a lot of photo editing involved! Because using the lint brush was useless – like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos – and because I was too lazy to wash or iron the background to get all the wrinkles out first. Had to do the whole shoot with my shoes off because I had to step onto the background every once and a while and didn’t want to leave dusty shoe prints on it.

In other news… I am working on several of my own projects… but I can’t show any of them yet! Some are for my book and some are secret-ish projects. I’m trying my best to make progress, but I do have an easily distracted squirrel brain, and it keeps coming up with more ideas that torture me and keep me awake at night until I try them. My brain is helpful sometimes because it can think through a myriad of solutions to figure out which one is most worth trying, but I cannot keep the wheels from turning, no matter how hard I try. I need to put blinders on whenever I go places, because there is inspiration out to get me everywhere I look. It’s exhausting! I need some kind of grounding, focusing type of yoga or something. But… hopefully I’ll have something I can share soon!

Happy beading to you all!

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