Monday, March 30, 2015

Beauty in the Glass



QUESTION: I have always loved paperweights. I don’t mean the kind with advertising on them but the ones with floral designs that seem embedded in them. I started buying them here and there, but I want to give some direction to my collection. How and when did these beauties originate? And can you give me some suggestions on building a collection?

ANSWER: From the beginning, people treated paperweights like works of art and not just as something to hold down paper. Early collectors included Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Eva Peron and King Farouk of Egypt. Today, there are over 20,000 paperweight collectors worldwide. But not all of them are famous celebrities. Some of them are ordinary people like you.

So what got them into collecting paperweights? People purchase paperweights for several reasons. Some just enjoy their beauty and may buy several as accent pieces for their home. Others purchase them because they remind them of one that a loved one had when they were a child. And still others buy them to collect as an object of beauty and value. And though collectors today still purchase paperweights in antique shops and at auctions, many more use the Internet as their primary source.

To begin with, the Paperweight Collectors Association divides paperweights into several periods: Classic, from 1840 to 1880, Folk Art and Advertising, from the 1880s to World War II, and Contemporary, after World War II.

While several hundred glass factories operated in France during the Classic period, the factories of Baccarat, Clichy, and St. Louis produced the highest quality paperweights. In the latter half of the 19th century, British glassmakers George Bacchus and Sons, Walsh-Walsh and Islington Glass Works also made paperweights. Although they’re considered to be of lesser quality, the factories in Belgium, Bohemia, Germany and Venice all made paperweights during this time.

Venetians glassblowers on the island of Murano made some of the earliest paperweights in the 1840s. They gathered scraps of leftover glass, as well as chunks of aventurine quartz, which they picked up from the floor with a ball of hot glass at the end of their blowpipe. They then covered this with an additional layer of clear glass and fashioned the mass into a smooth cylinder. The glass was of poor quality and the scraps it contained looked like a jumble.

Around the same time in Bohemia, in today’s Czech Republic, glassworkers improved on the Venetians’ techniques. Instead of a jumble, the Bohemians used the scraps to produce millefiori (multiple floral) effects, in which they organized the ends of the pieces of scrap glass with their cross sections facing out so that viewers could see patterns in the paperweight.

To this, the Bohemians added the artistry of the French, who really brought the art of the paperweight into full flower—no pun intended. In fact, it was these floral paperweights from the mid 19th-century that began to attract collectors. The flowers seem to be suspended within these paperweights and were like nothing else produced at the time.

Baccarat, the most famous paperweight maker, also used millefiori, whose cross-sections revealed stars, spirals, and shamrocks. The company produced both "plain" millefiori paperweights and those organized in concentric circles, with their ends interwoven like garlands.

The firm also produced mushrooms, in which a bundle of glass canes seems to sprout like a mushroom from within the weight, and carpets, whose wall-to-wall patterns look like those in antique Persian rugs.

The French added three-dimensional flowers encased in glass. At Baccarat, flower choices included pansies, primroses, wheatflowers, clematis, buttercups, and, of course, roses. The artisans also froze fruits, such as strawberries and pears, in glass.

Numerous other paperweight makers, such as Clichy, whose trademark rose appears in some 30 percent of all the paperweights produced by the company, and St. Louis, whose crown paperweights were its trademark, existed in France during the 19th century.

In England, the George Bacchus & Sons Glass Company, located in Birmingham, made paperweights with interiors that resembled stars and ruffles. Collectors hold its concentric paperweights in high regard, as well as those whose interiors appear to be blanketed with drifts of snow.

The New England Glass Company, the forerunner of the Libbey Glass Company, produced the first American paperweight for the Great Exhibition in London. This pictorial weight, dated 1851, featured Victoria and Albert. Both the New England Glass Company and the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works were key paperweight producers from the 1860s until they closed in 1888.

The 1920s saw a boom in paperweight technologies in the Czech Republic, where faceted, flower-filled paperweights had become popular. Baccarat revived its millefiori output shortly after World War II.

Today, the tradition continues. Because the techniques used in creating paperweights have been unaffected by technology, collectors are drawn to them today more than ever.

Building a paperweight collection is all a matter of personal taste. Buy what you like, old or newer. Some people collect only milleflori designs while others collect only paperweights made by one company or within a certain time period. One thing is for certain, paperweights make a great collectible for people who live in apartments or condos as they don’t take up much room.