By Doug MacCash
In his book Mardi Gras Beads, Doug MacCash delves into the history and significance of these iconic New Orleans parade throws. Here he reflects on a couple of intriguing new developments on the bead scene, as witnessed by this year’s parade-goers.
It’s a week after Fat Tuesday 2022, and New Orleans is suffering its customary Mardi Gras bead hangover.
The plastic pearls no longer dangle from our necks, but they still drape the Uptown oaks, like polycarbonate wisteria blossoms. Despite all efforts, many a strand has surely found its way into the storm drains and will eventually be sluiced into Lake Pontchartrain. Many others have been shoveled up, trucked away, and dumped into our doubtlessly glittering landfills.
Our beautiful beads, imported from the other side of the globe, have dreadful environmental, economic, and sociopolitical implications. Surely someday we’ll do away with them. . . . But we so love them, that day won’t come anytime soon.
The truth is, New Orleans doesn’t have a bead problem; it has an unwanted bead problem. And in 2022 two things happened that demonstrated the potential for making beads more precious . . . though maybe impractically so.
The most keepable necklaces of 2022 were certainly those flung by French Quarter jeweler Franco Valobra, who reigned as king of the Hermes parade. To symbolize the cultural and economic importance of the return of Carnival after the long coronavirus pandemic, Valobra reportedly tossed one hundred strands of real pearls, valued at something like $1,500 each.
It’s possible that some parade-goers may have unknowingly caught the strands of real pearls, mistook them for plastic, and relegated them to the trash can on Ash Wednesday. But, considering the advance publicity, we can imagine that the vast majority of those who snagged the real pearl necklaces recognized them for the treasure they were and kept them, hopefully forever.
Valobra’s largesse was absurdly unrealistic for your average float rider, of course, but it proved a point. When beads are desirable enough, they don’t clog the drains, stuff the landfills, or contribute to the plastic slurry in the earth’s seas.
Which brings us to the second most costly throw of Carnival 2022.
After years of trying, LSU professor Naohiro Kato had finally succeeded in producing biodegradable plastic Mardi Gras beads, made in part with an algae byproduct that he’d discovered. The beads, which are designed to eventually melt away in the sun and rain, were tossed during the Freret and Tucks parades. They were intended to solve the problem of the persistence of plastic beads on the planet. The grail had been found!
But hold the hosannas. There were problems.
Considering the research and development involved, the experimental beads, produced by a manufacturer in Grand Coteau, were costly, something like 50 bucks per strand. Which is significantly less expensive than real pearls, but still too much to challenge the low cost of imported Chinese beads. There were reportedly only 320 strands tossed to the crowds, who may or may not have recognized their rarity and significance.
Even before the debut of his biodegradable beads, Kato had had a change of heart. His concept, he’d concluded, was elementally illogical and doomed. He argued that if his biodegradable beads were so rare that they were keepsakes, then there was no reason for them to be biodegradable in the first place. They had to be cheap enough that nobody cared about them. They had to be disposable, not collectible.
Doug MacCash covers New Orleans art and culture for NOLA.com| The Times- Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.
The first in a new LSU Press series exploring facets of Louisiana’s iconic culture, Mardi Gras Beads delves into the history of this celebrated New Orleans artifact, explaining how Mardi Gras beads came to be in the first place and how they grew to have such an outsize presence in New Orleans celebrations. Mardi Gras Beads traces the history of these parade trinkets from their origins before World War One and concludes in the era of coronavirus, considering the future of biodegradable Mardi Gras beads in a city ever more threatened by the specter of climate change.