Antique Glass

A Survey of Italian, French, German, English and American Influences

Some of the most sought after antique glass comes from Italy where there has been a long history of producing high quality glass. Venetian glass, in particular, is known for its fine quality. The tradition of Ventian glass finds its roots in Constantinople. When the city was sacked in the 13th century, and again in the 15th, artisans fled to Venice seeking asylum. When Venice's wood buildings were threatened by fire from the area's many foundries, officials ordered them to be destroyed. At that point, Italy's center of glass working was moved to the Murano region, where kilns couldn't threaten Venice and glass workers (and their trade secrets) could be kept confined. Murano became known for many colorful and intricate glassworking techniques, including millefiori, milk glass, and imitation gemstones, pearls, and other adornments.

Venetian and Murano glass weren't the only well known types of Italian glass, however. Rome itself had a thriving glass industry, and many samples of very early Roman glass exist to this day. It was the Romans who discovered that glass could be blown into a mold, leading to intricate bottles, vases, and other hollow vessels. Roman glass making reached its peak around the 2nd century AD, with blown and cast glass objects being common and relatively inexpensive for the time period. Technology for creating glass objects didn't change very much for hundreds of years- in fact, the technology for creating blown glass ornaments has not markedly changed at all.

France was one of Italy's major competitors when it came to producing fine glass. France was responsible for creating the jealously-guarded “crown glass” technique used for making sheets of glass in the 1300s. To create crown glass, a blob of glass was placed on a round table, which was spun until centrifugal force forced the glass into a flattened circle. The thinnest, clearest glass around the outer edges was used for creating expensive windows and other sheet glass objects, while the often warped, thicker glass in the center was used for less expensive objects. At the height of Italy's glass blowing industry, France made several attempts to woo Italian glass makers over to her foundries. In 1600, France emerged as a major power in Europe's glass making trade. Roughly sixty years later, Jean Baptise Colbert established France's dominance in the manufacture of flat glass. The ambitious palace of Versailles was adorned partially as a testament to France's clear, high-quality flat glass. Later on that same century, France also became the leader in the production of polished plate glass, another technique which produced high-quality flat glass, without creating any of the lower-quality “bullseyes” produced by the crown glass method. Though Italy had originally developed the technique for producing mercury-foiled glass for mirrors, by the late 17th century, France was the dominant producer of flat glass for mirrors and windows, in contrast to Italy's colorful, decorative art glasses.

France was also the first place where milk glass came into high fashion, and antique French milk glass is still highly desired by collectors today. French art glass is strongly associated with the Art Nouveau movement, and the works of Emile Gale and Rene Lalique. Interestingly, the low-quality “bullseyes” produced by the old crown glass method are expensive collectibles today.

England was a key player in Europe's glass trade, though arguably not to the same extent as Italy and France. Their glass trade emerged around the 7th century AD, and they perfected the art of creating “broad sheet” flat glass. In this process, a long, tubular balloon of blown glass is formed, then the ends are cut off, and the resulting tube is slit up the middle while still hot. The resulting sheet of glass is unrolled, and then cut, painted, and used for various applications. Though this produced flat glass, the resulting glass was often wavy, wrinkled, or otherwise warped, with numerous bubbles and other imperfections. It wasn't until the late 1600s that the secret of crown glass would be revealed in England, allowing them to produce the higher-quality flat glass that France was already known for.

George Ravenscroft developed lead crystal in the late 1600s, having been commissioned to develop a manmade alternative to rock crystal. He discovered that the addition of lead oxide to the composition of glass lead to a hard, sparkling glass that refracted light beautifully, and could take detailed work like engraving with ease.

One of England's founding glass companies was Whitefriars, which existed from the 1600s until it was taken over by James Powell in 1834. England's mid-century modern Murano-style glass is particularly popular with collectors, as are the beautifully hand-painted and embellished vases produced during the Victorian era.

Glass making in Germany and the Czech republic has an interesting history, because here is where different types of glass really began to diverge. Whereas the Mediterranean glass makers of Italy produced soda glass using natron (a salt taken from dried river beds) as a flux, more northerly areas perfected the art of using potash obtained from burning trees instead.

Loetz was one of the regions' leaders in glass production, and developed a technique by which still-soft glass pieces were wrapped in glass threads. While the glass was still malleable, the threads could be manipulated to produce wavy, feathery forms on the surface of the finished product.

Bohemian art glass is known for its swirling, organic forms and iridescent sheen. Many pieces of Art Nouveau Bohemian art glass are highly sought by collectors, and generally consist of fairly typical vase and pitcher forms cleverly worked into flowers, trees, seashells, and other natural shapes.

In the United States, the first industrial methods of producing flat glass were developed. The “machine drawn cylinder” method was developed at the turn of the century, and allowed glass to be drawn mechanically in a cylindrical shape, annealed, cut, and flattened for use.

There have been many types of very collectible glass produced in the United States, particularly from the Victorian era onward. Brilliant glass was commonly given as a wedding present at the turn of the century, and consists of very heavily faceted, engraved pieces that refracted light like diamonds, hence their name. These brilliant glass pieces were popular choices for decorating dining tables, since they would play up flickering candle light beautifully. Carnival glass came along a short time later, and is still highly sought by collectors today. It was referred to as “Poor Man's Tiffany,” and provided a way for less affluent housewives to still be able to dress up their tables prettily. Carnival glass pieces consisted of inexpensive glass ware, treated to have bright colors and an iridescent, multicolored sheen. Many very old pieces of Carnival glass are still in stunning condition, having retained their bright colors and opal-like finish.

The Art Nouveau movement heavily influenced American glass, much as it did in Europe. Louis Comfort Tiffany is probably the best known maker of Art Nouveau art glass, and his elaborate stained glass and bronze lamps continue to be popular. Steuben was another prominent manufacturer of glass products. Unlike Tiffany's style, which tended to be dark and heavy, Steuben's pieces were light, luminous, and had a beautiful iridescent finish.

Years later, Depression glass was produced. When the Great Depression hit and fine glass ware from Europe became prohibitively expensive, Americans began to rely on inexpensive pieces from Hocking (now known as Anchor Hocking). Though cheap and ubiquitous at the time, Depression glass can sometimes be found in rare color combinations or limited runs that are highly valued by collectors.

Other Articles

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American Art Nouveau Glass - The Steuben Glass Works
In the first decades of the 20th century, the Steuben Glass Works produced some of the great collectibles of the American interpretation of Art Nouveau. The early Steuben design styles are associated with Frederick Carder an artist and glassmaker who led the firm between 1903 and 1932. Typically referred to as the Carder Period, the colorful wares that Steuben produced in this time are very distinct from later Steuben pieces and are now highly prized by collectors.

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