Most of the glass beads I use are from the Czech Republic, which has been making glass beads for many centuries. My favorites are Czech fire-polished beads, which are extremely versatile and come in many colors and finishes. Lampwork glass beads come from many countries, and are quite artistic. Hot glass is carefully layered and shaped to result in a striking handmade glass bead for you to use in your jewelry-making projects. Another type of glass bead I enjoy using is called cane glass. They’re cylindrical in shape, and come in solid colors and two-tone stripes. My favorite cane glass beads are hand-blown in Washington State by Fire Designs Studios.
Most crystal beads originate in Austria, the Czech Republic, or China. Swarovski crystals have been made in Austria for many years, and are considered the best around. In competition with Swarovski is a Czech company named Preciosa. Both companies offer high quality, brilliant shine, plus a wide variety of styles and colors. They even make crystal pearls, which I love because of their uniform shapes, sizes, and colors. Crystal pearls are handy in bead weaving, because their holes are larger than those in freshwater pearls, so it's easy to pass a needle and thread through crystal pearls without breaking them.
Chinese crystals are also quite good (though less shiny) and come in a wide variety of colors, but are far less expensive than those from Europe. I love combining Chinese crystals with pearls, glass, metals, or gemstones to create unique designs while keeping costs and prices affordable.
Cultured pearls are created in oysters, when an irritant like a grain of sand enters the oyster, but can't be expelled. The layers of nacre secreted by the oyster build up around the tiny irritant until a pearl is created. A cultured pearl means that the process was initiated by a human being and not some other natural event -- the oyster is harvested, an irritant is implanted in a lab, and then the mollusk is returned to the sea where the pearl grows over many weeks, months, or even years. The very best cultured pearls come from Japan, and can cost upwards of thousands of dollars for a single pearl.
Freshwater pearls are grown in freshwater mussels in circumstances similar to the cultured pearls. Most of these freshwater pearls come from China, and in the last few years, there has been an explosion of freshwater pearls in pretty much every color, shape, and size that you can imagine. While these pearls used to be relatively low cost compared to their cultured counterparts, you can now find freshwater pearls that retail for several hundred dollars per 16" strand. Freshwater pearls generally have a much more organic look to them than cultured pearls, and often look like non-conformists.