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I had a shocking admission to make to Joe, who manages the absolutely magical Beads of Paradise shop at 16 E. 17th St.: "I'm not really a 'bead person.'"

As soon as it was out of my mouth, I wondered if I had been unspeakably rude-Beads of Paradise is, as its name strongly suggests, a bead emporium; indeed, it's totally bedecked with the ornaments.

But Joe was unfazed, assuring me that a lot of people come in for their non-bead offerings, of which there are many-and that even those who do make a beeline for the beads do not always do so to wear them as jewelry (their obvious use), but to sew them onto articles of clothing or display them as art objects.

Consider that the range here includes tiny, almost granular, seed beads, which are indeed frequently used as embellishments for clothing as well as in jewelry making (a wee $3.50 per packet), intricately patterned antique glass German marble beads ($2,800 per strand) and dazzling 2,000-year-old Chinese Warring State orbs ($200 to $500 per).

Most of the offerings, however, are modestly priced semiprecious stones, sold in strands or loose for the purpose of your pleasure.

Especially popular now are the strands of prayer or meditation beads, Joe notes, citing their spiritual link as resonant with the times. "There's a lot of looking back and reflecting; a reprioritizing, a shifting into a more contemplative phase," he said. These beads, which range from bumpy-textured rudrakshas to classic sandalwood, are tagged at a tiny $8 and up for a bracelet-sized strand to $16 and up for necklaces.

While there is a selection of this indie shop's proprietary handcrafted jewelry, if you'd prefer to make your own out of the ornaments here but aren't sure how to proceed, has Beads of Paradise got a class for you: On Sundays, they run a $75 beginner's crash course that will not only teach you all you need to know, but will send you home with the wearable fruits of your labor plus tools of the trade and a one-time 20-percent discount on full-priced merchandise, valid for a month. Call 212-620-0642 for details.

Moving on from the beads, there is also a dizzying array of religious, spiritual and celebratory icons, art and artifacts, both antique and contemporary. Spanning several of these categories are the cajas, as Joe calls them. These are glass-fronted, brightly painted wooden shadow-boxes filled with fully dressed clay skeletons engaged in all sorts of worldly pursuits. Handmade in Mexico, these traditional craft items commemorate that country's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, which celebrates departed loved ones. While they may no longer be here in their earthly form, the holiday honors our continued relationship with them.

Hence, we see the small skeletons in the shadow boxes not only outfitted in all manner of material plus glitter and sequins (when appropriate to the scenario), but engaged in the worldly activities they may have enjoyed when they walked among us. One box features a restaurant scene, another a mariachi band and a third, nuptials. Regarding the last: Joe says they're popular as wedding gifts. I can totally see that-can't you?

Personally, I would like to have every caja sent directly to my home. But starting at only about $24 and going up to $100-plus for each, it's not so much the expense as the fact that I'd then have to throw out my bed to make room.

Still, it might be worth it?

-Laura Shanahan

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