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Written By: Bill Herren
Natural glass occurs when certain rocks and minerals melt or are fused together due to lightning strikes, volcanic eruptions or meteor strikes. When melted rock cools quickly, glass is formed. Ancient man is believed to have used the natural glass known as obsidian as cutting tools. Obsidian is formed when volcanic lava cools suddenly creating a distinctive black glass. While the earliest examples of ornamental glass are seen in beads and pottery, it was some time before the craft of glass blowing was developed.
Glass Blowing in Ancient Rome
It wasn’t until around 300 BC that the Syrians invented the blowpipe which formed the foundation for the craft of glass blowing. During the Roman Empire, new techniques and experimentation began and these techniques are still used in glass blowing today. Roman craftsmen often used molds in conjunction with glass blowing to form new shapes and vessels. They also experimented with colors and adding gold and silver inlays to glass objects. Glass enameling later perfected by the glass blowers in the Middle East and Egypt began during the time of the Roman Empire.
Italian Glass Makers and the Middle Ages
Venice, Italy became the center for glass making as a result of trade with the Middle East. During the Middle Ages, the Italian government was so intent on guarding their monopoly on the glass trade that they ordered all glass blowers to move to the island of Murano in 1291. Murano craftsmen developed a clear glass and vivid colors that are still in demand among collectors today. Although the Murano glass blowing trade was a closely guarded secret and anyone caught leaving the island could be sentenced to death, some craftsman did manage to leave and helped spread new techniques throughout the greater parts of Europe and Asia.
The Renaissance and Glass Art
During the Renaissance, the art of glass blowing and other glass making techniques began to widely spread with the publication of a book by Antonio Neri called L’Arte Vetraria or The Art of Glass. With the publication of this book, all secrets of glass making were revealed. With this knowledge and additional new technologies including leaded glass and the use of diamond engraving, the art of glass making spread throughout Europe and Asia. Venetian glass blowers introduced the art to England during the Renaissance period.
Early American Glass Production
In 1607, Jamestown, Virginia was settled by the Virginia Company of London. Glass blowing was introduced to America through the glasshouse in Jamestown. It was thought that by establishing glass blowing in Jamestown, the company could profit from the sale of bottles, jars and other glass blown items. When the first glasshouse proved to be unsuccessful, a second attempt was made in 1622.
While the early glass blowing industry at Jamestown failed to provide the profits the London company hoped for, it did open the doors to the future of glass blown pieces throughout America in later years.
Glass Blowing During the Art Nouveau Period
Prior to the late 1800s, glass production was largely centered on practical use such as jars, bottles, and panes of clear glass for windows. During the 20th century, artists and designers worked together to combine artistic design and practical functionality in many glass pieces. Glass work by artists Eugene Rousseau and Emile Galle introduced the Art Nouveau style in glass designs at the 1878 Paris Exhibition. It was Galle’s designs which influenced Louis Comfort Tiffany (Tiffany Jewelers) to begin designing glass pieces. Still it took almost another 100 years before glass artists began to work independently from their own studios rather than in a factory environment. Working independently allowed glass artists to fully explore a wide variety of glass working techniques involving both hot and cold applications. The development of portable glass furnaces opened yet another possibility to glass blowers for independent design and crafting.
From the 1960s to the Future
The studio glass movement began in America during the 1960s and quickly spread around the world. While individual glass artists such as Harvey Littleton opened independent studios and experimented with new techniques in glass blowing, casting and glass carving, museums across the country began to look at glass blowing as a serious art form. The Pacific Northwest quickly grew as the hub for studio glass art and is the home of the Museum of Glass Art in Tacoma, Washington as well as the famous Pilchuck Studio. The studio glass movement continues to evolve today and no doubt will continue to do so as newer technology emerges. Glass blowing and the studio glass designs place the emphasis on the designer/artist who may be the glass blower or who may work with a team of glass blowers. The work of Dale Chihuly is a well-known example of a team of glass artists working together. Glass blowing has come a long way from those secretive beginnings as studio glass communities continue to share technology and ideas.
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