All malas have 108 mala beads and a guru bead (the larger bead where the circle of mala beads joins together). Different traditions have different methods for dividing the beads into sections with the use of marker beads according to the way malas are used within those traditions.
(There are also half-malas with 54 mala beads and bracelet malas with 27 mala beads, but those are not the focus of this post.)
The four styles of mala beads are: 108-bead, Tibetan, Zen, and Mantra styles.
108 Bead Mala
The 108 bead mala style has no markers at all. It contains the 108 mala beads with no divisions into sections, the guru bead, and the tassel (or pendant substitute).
The types of beads used for the 108 mala beads may be all the same or may include different types of beads, but either way, the key feature of this style is that there are no marker beads or divisions into sections.
One example of this style of mala is my Beryl, morganite, aquamarine, and cracked agate hand knotted mala with a multi-color silk tassel.
The traditional Tibetan style of mala breaks the 108 mala beads into four equal sections of 27 beads each with three marker beads indicating those divisions.
Marker beads are usually a different size and type of bead to make them easy to identify by touch as much as by look, and may be flanked by spacer beads, bead caps, or other means to help them stand out. Within each section of 27 mala beads, the beads may all be the same or may vary.
One example of this style of mala is my Red creek jasper, rainbow obsidian, and rainbow sheen obsidian hand knotted mala in the Tibetan style with a silk tassel, which uses rainbow obsidian beads flanked with gold toned spacer as marker beads.
The Zen mala style breaks the 108 mala beads into a total of five sections containing 7, 14, 66, 41, and 7 beads respectively as you travel around the mala.
Each section is divided from the next by a marker bead. As mentioned above, these will typically stand out from the mala beads in some fashion. Within each section, the beads may remain the same or may vary. However using these divisions to make the beads in each section slightly different from the next section is a common design technique in this style that produces a lovely symmetrical look.
An example of this style of mala is my Rainbow and sandalwood Zen mala with a wood Buddha guru bead and black silk tassel, which uses faceted matte black onyx beads as marker beads and mala beads in varying stones and sandalwood.
The Mantra mala style breaks the 108 mala beads into four sections containing 21, 33, 21, and 33 beads respectively as you travel around the mala with each section divided from the next with a marker bead.
As with other styles, marker beads are generally easily distinguishable from the mala beads and the mala beads themselves may vary or stay the same within each section.
This is a style of mala that I do not currently offer as part of my standard inventory but would happily create as a custom design.
Choosing the right style for you can involve considering how you wish to use your mala, your design preferences, and the particular tradition (if any) that you adhere to.