All About Crystals

Seven things you always wanted to know about crystals but were afraid to ask.
Crystals hero
Ah, crystals! Many beaders compare themselves to crows — always hunting and pecking for bright, shiny objects — because of their obsession with crystals. A lot of us get lost in those mesmerizing facets without knowing much about them, and it can be embarrassing to ask, “So just what exactly are these things?” as we shamelessly pile them into our shopping bags. In which case, allow us to preserve your dignity, your anonymity, and your unbridled dependency on these beautiful treasures with the following: 
1. How are crystals different from glass beads?

Glass beads are composed of sand (silica), soda ash (sodium carbonate), and limestone (calcium carbonate), and crystals are traditionally made of the same stuff with the addition of lead. Lead makes crystals, well, crystal clear and allows light to really reflect inside the beads (that would be the sparkle factor). Lead also makes crystals heavier than glass beads. 

In recent years, however, crystal manufacturers have moved toward low- and zero-lead products, with stunning results, and we expect that trend to continue. This is great news for anyone who is concerned about using crystals with lead in them, but it does mean you’ll need to pay more attention when purchasing to make sure you know what you’re getting.  

And for the record, crystal beads do not come from naturally occurring crystalline minerals; crystals are manufactured, not mined.

Blue bead
2. Sometimes I see crystals advertised as “lead crystal” — isn’t that redundant?
“Lead,” “leaded,” or “full-lead” crystals must have a chemical makeup of at least 24 percent lead, while beads with less lead are just called “crystals.” Occasionally, you will see lead-free glass beads (like this blue fire-polished bead, right) called crystals because they are faceted like their leaded counterparts, but these are not true crystals.
3. Does the brand make a difference?

It does when it comes to lead content, cut quality, and price. Let’s survey the major players:

Swarovski: Swarovski is a huge name in the industry; you may hear their product referred to as Austrian crystal, as it’s made in Wattens, Austria. Historically, Swarovski’s crisp, clear, and ultra-sparkly crystals were made with a minimum of 32 percent lead. In 2012, Swarovski unveiled their lead-free “Advanced Crystal” formula, containing just 0.009 percent lead and just as much sparkle. Their entire product line is now considered lead-free. Learn more at 

Preciosa: Based in Jablonec nad Nisou in Northern Bohemia, Preciosa is the premier manufacturer of Czech crystal. Their crystal beads contain about 30 percent lead and get kudos for cut and clarity. They’re refreshingly priced for such a fine product. Preciosa has also entered the lead-free space with their “Maxima” line, which thus far is limited to specific products. Learn more at 

Chinese crystal: Artisans have been making crystal in Austria and Bohemia for centuries, so it’s not surprising that a few brands have distinguished themselves. In China, crystal production is a more recent development, so there are many brands out there, such as Thunder Polish, but more often than not you will simply see beads called “Chinese crystal.” Chinese crystals have considerably less lead and are the most cost-effective choice available, but you’ll notice a difference in the consistency of the bead size and facets within the same strand or package.

random crystals
4. What exactly is a Xilion?

Xilion is a precise cut of facets from Swarovski, offering even more sparkle than previous styles. “Xilion” often refers to bicone-shaped crystals (like the name suggests, bicones look like two conical shapes attached at the base), but other Swarovski products feature the Xilion cut, such as Hotfix flat-backs and other stones. 

Across manufacturers, the bicone is right up there with round crystals as the most popular shape. You’ll also find crystal cubes, teardrops, briolettes, ovals, and rondelles. Crystal pendants come in all kinds of specialty shapes, like hearts, butterflies, leaves, flowers, rings, and abstract shapes with whimsical names. Also, crystal components have burst onto the jewelry scene in the past few years: crystal buttons, sew-on stones, sequins, flat-backs, and crystal-studded beads as well as findings, like clasps, head pins, and chain. Crystal products range from the miniscule 2 mm round crystal bead to pendants nearly 40 mm in length. 

Crystal pearls
5. What is a crystal pearl?
To make crystal pearls, manufac-turers start with a round crystal bead and build up a man-made pearlescent coating around it. The resulting bead is a perfectly round faux pearl with the weight of the real deal. The uniform sizes ranging from 3–14 mm are wonderful to work with, sporting holes that are larger than the typically hand-drilled holes of natural pearl beads. Crystal pearls also come in shapes like twisted disks and teardrops.
6. I’ve seen rivolis called other names like “dentelle” and “chaton.” Are they all the same thing?
These are all terms used to talk about crystal stones, which may also be called rhinestones, Strass (a name borrowed from the original maker of rhinestones), pastes, or diamantes. Not familiar with those words? That’s because crystal stones are more frequently referred to by their shape, and that’s where “rivoli” and related terms come in. A rivoli is a round crystal stone that is pointed on both the front and the back. A chaton, on the other hand, is a round crystal stone with a pointed back and a faceted front that does not come to a point. A rose-cut chaton looks like a regular chaton from the front but has a flat back. And a dentelle is very similar to a chaton but it has more facets. Other crystal stone shapes include baguettes (rectangles) and navettes (pointed ovals). Crystal stones may be measured in millimeters or by stone size (SS). 

Use this chart to convert a stone size to millimeters.

     SS SIZE    Metric conversion

SS 5 1.7–1.8 mm
SS 6 2–2.1 mm
SS 8 2.4–2.5 mm
SS 12 3–3.2 mm
SS 14 3.5–3.6 mm
SS 17 4–4.1 mm
SS 18 4.2–4.4 mm
SS 19 4.4–4.6 mm
SS 24 5.27–5.44 mm
SS 29 6.14–6.32 mm

7. What do those letters and numbers after a crystal color mean?

As if crystal color names weren’t long enough already, there’s often an abbreviation tacked onto the end to indicate any special-effect finishes. Usually only one half of a crystal receives a finish; 2X means that both halves have been treated.

AB translates to Aurora Borealis, a reflective iridescent finish, while CAL stands for Comet Argent Light, a silvery sheen. Not all finishes are abbreviated (satin, vitrail, and aurum to name a few), but you’ll recognize them because they show up often in crystal color names. 

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