Glass is a mysterious and beautiful material. The skill that is required to craft it into objects, as well as the creativity employed in different methods of decoration, make for stunning utilitarian items and objects of art.
Collectible glass generally falls into one of two categories: functional glassware, either mass produced or hand crafted, or Art glass, which can also be either mass produced or hand crafted. The former describes utilitarian objects such as cut glass drinking vessels, though there are not necessarily lacking in aesthetic design. Art glass describes glass items created as decorative objects, though not necessarily without a functional purpose.
The first documented glass making was in Ancient Egypt around 2000 BC, when glass was first used as a glaze for pottery and other items.
Between 27 B.C and 14 A.D the technique of blowing glass was developed by Syrian craftsmen, a technique that the Romans later developed using moulds to greatly increase the variety of shapes produced.
In the Roman Empire glass was blown in large quantities to produce bottles for liquids and drinking vessels. They also produced decorative pieces using coloured glass, trailed decoration and developed the millefiore style commonly seen in classic French glass paperweights of the 19th century. They also produced objects using the cameo glass technique such as the famous Portland Vase, currently owned by the British Museum, which inspired glassmakers from the 18th century onwards.
The decline of the Roman Empire also saw a decline in European glass production, and glassware became functional as decorative techniques were lost.
Glass in the Middle Ages
However, during the Middle Ages the Italian city of Venice became the centre of glassmaking in the western world. The powerful Venetian merchant fleet helped to supply Venice's glass craftsmen with the knowledge of glassmakers in Syria and the creative influences of Islam. At one point there were more than 8,000 workers in the Venetian glass industry, and their techniques were highly guarded. In 1291 glassmaking was transferred from the city to the island of Murano as a measure against the frequent fires the industry caused, as well as offering a better location for securing industrial secrets.
By the twelfth century stained glass windows were being used for churches and by the beginning of the 15th century colourless glass was being manufactured again on a large scale, produced using techniques perfected by Venetian craftsmen. Many of the Venetian glassmakers later took their talents across Europe, and the 16th century saw a boom in glass production across the continent.
In Britain, glass production moved to areas dominated by the coal industry during the 17th century, as Sir Robert Mansell’s coal-burning furnace revolutionised the glass-making process.
George Ravenscroft’s invention of lead crystal in 1674 further aided Britain’s industry, as the emphasis in style changed from colourful creations to a concentration on the fine engraving end enamelling of clear glass.
During the 18th century faceted wineglass stems became popular, and glasses often featured engraved decoration commemorating causes such as the Jacobite and Williamite glasses, family crests and armorials. The Beilby family of Newcastle were celebrated for their enamel decoration on glassware in the second half of the eighteenth century with pieces decorated with armorials a considerable rarity.
Other glassware produced in the eighteenth century included decanters, tankards, tumblers and a wide range of tableware.
The end of the century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, saw mass production ensure with glass mechanically blown and continuously produced in factories, rather than hand blown by craftsmen. However, they continued to be hand decorated up until the 1930s.
During the nineteenth century many new techniques were developed including acid etching, fine engraving, magnificent cutting, cameo and rock crystal style engraving.
Thus the mid 1800s gave rise to a revolution in glassmaking. Glass blowers began experimenting with colours, patterns and textures and producing beautiful decorative objects, in effect, art glass.
In Manchester the technique of press moulding was being used to mass produce pieces and items could be made with a variety of designs on them including some by great names such as Walter Crane.
In France the later years of the 19th century saw stunning Art Nouveau cameo glass work by French designer Émile Gallé.
In the early part of the twentieth century there was a continuation of the nineteenth century style, and designers from France and America came to the forefront.
In America Louis Comfort Tiffany is particularly famous for his iridescent glassware, leaded glass lamp shades and stained-glass windows, along with his role as the first Design Director for Tiffany & Co., the jewellery company founded by his father.
In France René Lalique was recognised as one of the foremost Art Nouveau jewellery designers by the turn of the century, and became famous for his work in the Art Deco style during the 1920s. He became known for his stunning creations of perfume bottles, vases, jewellery, chandeliers, clocks and latterly car hood ornaments, which have become highly-prized items of automobilia.
The post-war years saw important work from Swedish glass makers such as Kosta and Boda, the Finnish company Iittalia and designer Kaj Franck, and British company Whitefriars.
Also influential were designer Michael Harris, the Mdina company in Malta and Danish producers Holmegaard and Kastrup.
Types of collectible glass
Collectors tend to focus on one style, manufacturer, or designer of glass. Some popular examples are listed below, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
- The Steuben Glass Works, established in 1903 with notable glass designer Frederick Carder at the helm, developed the Aurene style of iridescent glass. They employed many Art Nouveau elements of design in their pieces. Carder’s successor, sculptor Sidney Waugh, pioneered a new chemical method to create clear crystal glass, and led the company into the era of Art Deco design with his geometric forms. In the 1940s the company collaborated with 27 distinguished artists including Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keefe, Salvador Dali and Thomas Hart Benton to create new decorative art glass objects.
- The Blenko Glass Company produced some of the first mouth blown glass in America, from the 1920s. It began life as the Eureka glass company, producing stained glass and later standard glass tableware. The company’s pieces became more detailed and artistic from the 1930s onwards, experimenting with colour and form, and producing vases and amphoras. Blenko hired several talented designers over the years, including Wayne Husted and Joel Philip Myers, and the popularity of its increasingly creative glassware grew.
- The Fenton Art Glass Company was founded in 1905, and became renowned for its accomplished carnival glass, as perhaps the first, and most influential company to produce this style of glass.
- The Fostoria Glass Company created hand-moulded, blown and pressed tableware and glassware for 90 years. It is renowned for its ‘American’ line of glassware, as well as the coloured pieces they produced for the after work parties and brunches of 20th century Americans.
- The Imperial Glass Company, founded in 1901, mass produced items for the consumer, from tableware to lampshades. They were known for their carnival glass, in designs such as Candlewick, Grape, and Marigold. Their glassware is widely available and popular with collectors, who grew up within families that used Imperial’s affordable and mass produced items.
- Baccarat was founded in 1764 in France. Since these early beginnings, the company has produced numerous forms and styles of glass. They began producing lead crystal in 1816, and its stemware was royally commissioned. Their millefiori paperweights, with interiors using flowers and even birds, were created from 1846 onwards and are popular collectors’ items. Baccarat moved with the times, producing Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs in the early 1900s, and began producing beautiful perfume bottles which are also popular with collectors.
- Louis Comfort Tiffany was a designer best known for his stained glass works, in particular his lamps. He was greatly associated with the Art Nouveau movement. He also designed windows, mosaics, and jewellery.
- Rene Lalique is one of the most famous glass designers in history. He believed in marrying beautiful design and high quality with affordability for the masses. He produced stunning art glass designs for perfume bottles, car hood ornaments or mascots, vases and tableware, and then had them mass manufactured in factories. His pieces are highly associated with the Art Deco movement.
- Dorothy Thorpe decorated glassware from the early 1930s until the 1950s. She bought glassware from other companies, which she decorated with her own designs and sold on. Her glassware features heavily etched designs, sand-blasting, and silver overlays.
- Emile Gallé was a French artist known for his glass designs. He was a major force in the French Art Nouveau movement. His early glass was decorated with enamel, but he later turned to heavy, opaque glass carved or etched with plant motifs, and often employing the use of cameo glass. He rose to prominence in the wake of the 1878 Paris Exhibition.
- Aurene glass was an iridescent style of art glass with a gold sheen made by the Steuben Glass Works. It was produced in the late 19th – early 20th century. They were forced to halt production of this style of glass after World War One.
- Carnival glass is a form of pressed of moulded glassware with a metallic sheen that was produced by numerous glass manufacturers in the early 20th century. It remains extremely popular with collectors.
- Early American pattern glass is a style of pressed glassware made in America by many different companies during the Victorian era. It was an economic alternative to hand-cut crystal.
- Depression glass was produced during the Great Depression in America. The 1920s saw a new mold-etch process invented, which reduced manufacturing costs and allowed glassware to be produced cheaply, just in time for the Depression. While this glass is of a low quality and mass produced, it has a large following of collectors.
- Venetian glass is a style of glassware that uses techniques established in Venice as early as the 13th century. However, Venice’s glassworks were all burnt down and the glass began to be produced in Murano – so it is also known as Murano glass. Characteristics include ornamentation and bright colour, using techniques such as enamelling, threading with gold, millefiori or multicoloured, milk glass, beads and imitation gemstones.
- Cameo glass is a style of glassware that involves fusing several layers of coloured glass together, creating a multi-coloured object. The technique dates back to Roman times, but was forgotten then rediscovered in the 18th century.
Types of collectible glass object
- Perfume bottles
- Stained glass windows
- Branded drinking glasses
Guide to Collecting
To start a collection, it is worth narrowing down the field to items that you really admire. Collectors will often focus either on functional glassware, or on art glass. They will then narrow this down to a manufacturer, designer, style, or type. Some may even focus on one particular colour, such as Bristol blue glass.
When collecting art glass, hand crafted items are generally more valuable than factory produced art glass. However, it has been recognised that high quality factory produced items by eminent designers like Lalique are also art glass.
Pontil marks, the area where the glass blower broke off the finished product from the pontil rod, have been found on glass since Roman times and indicate that the item was mouth blown. These began to disappear from 1850-1870 on many common items as methods became more sophisticated and factory production ensued. However, studio made art glass continued to carry pontil marks. These can help date an item, depending what size and how rough they are.
Items that retain their original label are of course more easy to identify than others, which can make a large difference to the value of a piece.
Condition always affects value, so study each piece for chips, cracks and fading before buying. However, for collectors on a budget, slight wear and tear can allow you to possess a stunning piece of art glass for a very reasonable price.
There are numerous books and online guides to collecting specific popular types of glass, such as Murano, Blenko or Carnival glass.
Where to find
There are numerous auctions and dealers that offer glass. Depending on what genre of glass you are collecting, you can find pieces at auction, on eBay, direct from dealers in specific types of glass, and in second hand and antique stores. If you’re lucky, you may find some stunning examples stored away in a relative’s home.