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 Glass Paperweights

An Extraordinary Art Form

 

 Art Elder

Director
Glass Paperweight Foundation

 

 

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Glass paperweights have been described as one of the world’s best-kept secrets. The secret is not because of a conspiracy, but because of a simple lack of exposure. This is a real shame, because once people see them, understand how they are made, and their history, they are genuinely fascinated with them.

I'll bet many of you were surprised to find a slide show presentation about paperweights. I know that I've told people that I collect glass paperweights, and their response has been, “You collect what? I've never heard of anyone collecting those.”

I hope this presentation will help you understand the magical beauty of paperweights, and that you will derive the pleasure from them that I do. Hopefully, you will also develop an appreciation of this art form and an understanding of the significance of paperweights in the art world.

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OK, what are paperweights anyway? When I talk about paperweights, I'm referring to small glass objects containing colorful canes in complex designs, or graceful flowers, bouquets, or even animals that are encased in crystal.  Glass artists who were also master craftsmen made fine glass paperweights. Whether or not they were ever used to hold down paper is immaterial. Probably less than 1/2 of 1% were used for this purpose. Instead, they are prized for their beauty, grace, and, in some cases, rarity

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 This slide is an example of a complex bouquet botanical made by Paul Stankard, the recognized Dean of contemporary paperweight artists. Although the flowers may appear realistic, they are actually sculpted from colored glass rods, and then encased in molten glass at temperatures of 1500-2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Through time, paperweights have steadily appreciated in value, and some have been outstanding investments. An example, (on the left) is this antique paperweight of silkworms. The Pantin factory made it, we think, as a special exhibit piece for the 1878 Paris Exhibition. This paperweight commemorated the work of Louis Pasteur, for preventing a disease that threatened to decimate the silkworm. Pasteur was credited with saving the French silk industry. We lose track of the paperweight from the exhibit in 1878, until 1931, when it was bought by a London dealer for 6 pounds (about $30), and sold immediately to a collector for 26 pounds (about $130). In 1952 it sold at auction for 1200 pounds (about $3600), and in 1983 it was auctioned again for a then record price of $143,000. This weight is now part of the Rubloff Collection exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. However, few paperweights are bought strictly for their investment potential. The majority of collectors buy them because of their love for and fascination with these objects.

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In case you're curious, the world record price for a paperweight was set at just over a quarter-million dollars in a 1990 Sotheby’s auction, and this is a picture of it. This antique millefiori weight, produced in the mid 1800s by the French Clichy factory, is known as the Basket of Flowers. The basket had a handle, but it was broken off.

 

IT STARTED IN VENICE

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Venetian glassmakers at an Industrial Exhibition in Vienna first showed paperweights in 1845, where the French trade representatives quickly recognized their potential. This paperweight, by Pietro Bigaglia was made with scrambled bits of millefiori canes, encased in a dome of glass, which gave it a magical quality. Millefiori (which translates from Italian as thousand flowers) was first developed about 100-200 BC, when the technique was used to decorate bowls and vases with colorful canes. Paperweights carried this technique a step further by encasing the canes in a magnifying glass dome. Artistically, the clear glass dome that surrounds a paperweight serves many of the same functions as the canvas painted on by an artist. This combination provided the breakthrough for paperweight techniques.

 

CLASSICAL PAPERWEIGHTS

The French factories must have been experimenting with the concept and technology prior to 1845, because quality French weights were being made that year. Likewise, Bohemian glass workers, who bought glass canes from the Venetians, must have been equally advanced in paperweight techniques, because theirs also appeared quickly on the market.

Although several hundred-glass factories operated in France in the mid 1800's, only four documented factories proceeded to produce the highest-quality paperweights. These included the Baccarat, Clichy, Pantin, and Saint Louis factories. At the time, France was undergoing a period of political and social agitation. The Revolution of 1848 greatly affected the financial climate. Expensive luxuries, such as large chandeliers, and decorated vases, were difficult to justify in those troubled times, but a market developed for paperweights, because they were high quality, small, and moderately priced. Amidst the decorative excess that typified Victorian times, paperweights provided a respite of exquisite craftsmanship and conservative artistry. They became a popular gift item to be given to family or loved ones. They were sold in stationery stores, and fine glass shops throughout Europe and Great Britain, and eventually in America.  George Bacchus and Sons, and Islington Glass Works in Birmingham were also making quality weights at this time in Britain. Many unnamed makers in Bohemia also created impressive paperweights. Curiously, the Venetian originators did not participate in the high-quality market.

Production peaked in Europe about 1851, and then sharply declined from 1855 to 1860. During the 15 years of the Classic Period (1845-60), it is estimated that about 50,000-100,000 fine paperweights were made. This is a difficult number to confirm, since production figures were not retained.

Lets look at some of the fine paperweights made during this period.

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This close packed Baccarat millefiori weight is a prime example of the glass working intricacies the Victorian artisans achieved. This piece is about 2 1/2 inches in diameter, and much of the detail you see on the screen is best viewed with a magnifier.

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These are close-up views of the previous weight to show some of the detail. Paperweights became a vehicle for showcasing the cutting edge of glass working techniques, and they still serve that purpose today. Victorians loved to play games, and glassmakers wanted people to discover a new delight every time they looked at a paperweight. Collectors will sometimes own a weight like this for years before discovering all the canes.

   

On the left is a Baccarat trefoil garland on muslin, on the right is a Baccarat patterned carpet ground. These are examples of the different patterns that artisans created with millefiori.

     

A Clichy close concentric millefiori is on the left. This is an example of the millefiori produced by the Clichy factory, which was renowned for its brilliant use of color.

On the right is a Clichy color ground with scattered millefiori. Its easy to understand why paperweights are so often compared with jewels.

    

A Baccarat bouquet is on the left. Eventually, Victorian artisans began to expand their skill with millefiori by creating more obviously floral designs. This weight shows a progression of technique. Communicating messages with flowers was a very popular Victorian custom, so flowers became a natural avenue of expression for glass artisans.

On the right is a floral bouquet. This bouquet by the Clichy factory shows a very different style than the Baccarat bouquet.

      

This St. Louis fuchsia (left) was created by a process called lampworking, where colored rods were sculpted into the shape of a flower using an oil lamp with a foot powered bellows. The glass flower was then encased in crystal.

A St. Louis pompon on latticinio cushion on the right has a very soft and feathery appearance, which is difficult to achieve in glass.

 

This is an upright floral bouquet in a basket by the St. Louis factory, which shows a very different presentation from the horizontal format used by the Baccarat or Clichy factories.

It is estimated that only about 20,000 of glass paperweights have survived to this day, with about 6000 of those being quality pieces. They are tightly held in private collections and museums. A limited number are available for sale by specialty dealers and through auctions. The combination of their quality, their beauty, and their rarity makes them all the more collectable. They are the most sought after works of 19th century glass. These works of art are true gems, and have been described as the crown jewels for collectors.

Rarely, some of the crown jewels are found in flea markets and garage sales. Several of my friends have found real gems and bought them for $25-100, which were worth about $3000. Some years ago, a woman in Virginia bought a paperweight for $1 in a curiosity shop. This is the picture of the weight she bought. She suspected it to be a quality piece, and had it appraised. In 1993 it was sold at a Sothebys auction for $29,000. I haven’t been so lucky despite continued efforts.

At this point, let me digress a minute to talk about prices. I hope the 5 and 6 figure prices that Ive talked about havent discouraged you. The weights bringing these prices are very unusual and rare exceptions. Beginning collectors can find nice antique weights for $500 to $700 from reputable dealers. Modern designs can be acquired for prices beginning as low as $50.

In America during the 1850's, paperweights were brought home as souvenirs by visitors to Paris and London, and certainly by 1853 they became well known because Clichy displayed them at New Yorks Crystal Palace Exhibition that year. None other than Horace Greeley published favorable comments about them in newspapers of the day. American-made weights began to appear that year.

About 1860, the manufacture of fine paperweights sharply declined in Europe, due to a number of factors. The economic surge of the Industrial Revolution during the 1860's caused the glass factories to turn their production away from the small and moderately priced paperweights, to more grandiose commissions such as palatial crystal and chandeliers. Additionally, less-qualified artists were producing many poor-quality weights. These discouraged the marketplace, and paperweights fell out of fashion. However, a very short-term revival of paperweight making occurred in 1878, when the Pantin factory in Paris made some very dimensional and exquisite pieces. These are very rare and much sought after.

In the 1860's, American-made paperweights were commonplace, and the American market for them was strong. Most of the American glassmakers were European immigrants already skilled in the art. This explains why early American weights are imitative of the European style. Later American weights developed their own unique style. The better American-made weights were produced in the next 30 years, or until 1890. Limited production continued into the 1900's, when declining quality discouraged the market as it had in Europe 40 years earlier. The technique for making paperweights was lost, because nothing was recorded about the manufacturing secrets.

The better American weights rarely attained the precision and quality of their French counterparts. They are easily distinguishable from the French weights, and appear somewhat primitive in comparison. To many collectors, however, they are all the more endearing because of these differences.

Here are a few examples of American weights made in the 1860-1900 time frame.

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The American artists imbued this design with their own special style.  The left is a New England Glass overlay upright bouquet. This piece shows an obvious French influence.

The dimensional New England Glass upright bouquet contains both fruit and flowers.  Fruit was considered to be just as beautiful as flowers, and was often included in bouquets at the time.

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The poinsettia on the left is a commonly found American weight.

On the Right is a Sandwich weed flower.  A number of pieces, such as this red, white, and blue pansy-type bloom, reflect the patriotic spirit of the time. To reference the time, these pieces were being produced around the time of the American Civil War.

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The Gillinder carpet ground millefiorion the left is extremely rare. Probably less than 100 were made by Gillinder, and they are considered among the finest of American weights.

The rose on the right by the Mt. Washington factory probably represents the most sought after American design.

 

COLLECTING

The first collectors of paperweights didn't seriously pursue them until shortly after the production ceased in Europe in 1860. The early collectors were the nobility, and included Queen Victoria, Queen Mary, Napoleon IIIs wife Empress Eugenie, and Mexican Emperor Maximilians wife Empress Carlotta. Oscar Wilde was also an early collector. From 1920 until World War II, interest in collecting paperweights was restricted to a small, but active group. Collectors at this time included King Farouk, Eva Peron, and Truman Capote, and several lesser-known individuals who amassed great collections.

Paperweights were recognized as a legitimate form of the decorative arts in 1925, when Sothebys conducted the first major auction of paperweights. That auction included 82 weights that sold for a total of $588 (an average of about $7 each). Auctions have been held periodically ever since.

The number of paperweight collectors began to increase sharply after World War II. This coincided with the re-manufacture of paperweights by the French factories. This was the result of Paul Jokelson, (an importer and collector) who encouraged them in the early 1950s to revive the art. The French glass artisans were then faced with the enormous task of re-discovering the lost techniques. Shortly after, a paperweight cottage industry developed in Scotland, which quickly grew to become a major manufacturer of quality paperweights from modern factories.

The Paperweight Collectors Association was formed by Mr. Jokelson in 1954 with 75 members. They have been instrumental in providing a forum for collectors to learn more about their hobby. Their membership is now over 1800. The International Paperweight Society, who underwrote the preparation and writing of this talk, was formed in 1992 with the goal of promoting the awareness and enjoyment of paperweights.

It is estimated there are presently about 20,000 collectors, including diverse celebrities such as Peter Jennings, Johnny Carson, Alan Shepard, John Madden, Ann Bancroft, Henry Winkler, Robin Leach, and the late Malcolm Forbes.

 

CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS

Today, we are in the midst of a paperweight renaissance. Contemporary glass artists are producing the most technically challenging and innovative paperweights in history. They bring contemporary vitality to the art and have challenged the traditions of the French masters.

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Paperweights by Paul Ysart

It must be acknowledged that the renaissance began in a small way before the French factories started up production in the 1950s. In Scotland, a transplanted Spanish glassmaker named Paul Ysart started experimenting in the late 1920s during his spare time, and he produced quality weights in the late 1930s. The majority of his weights were made between 1955 and 1979. He died in 1991.

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Paperweights by Charles Kaziun             

In Massachusetts, Charles Kaziun, began working in 1939 to rediscover the lost techniques of the French masters. Shortly after the war, he began producing high-quality weights that were much in demand by collectors. He made weights until he died in 1992.

These two artists spawned the contemporary movement that now has 30-40 makers of quality paperweights. Modern weights are nearly flawless because of cleaner materials and better equipment. Its not unusual for quality contemporary weights to sell for $500-1000, with the premier makers bringing double, or more. However, very fine examples by lesser-known artists, and those produced in volume by factories will frequently sell for $150-300.

 

HOW ARE THEY MADE?

The most popular question asked about paperweights is,  “How are they made?”  In order to create a paperweight, an artist must master many different techniques. These photos show some artists at work.

 

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The photo on the left shows artist Drew Ebelhare in the process of creating a millefiori rod to be used in his paperweights. The glass on the end of his rod is shaped into a pattern by dipping it in a metal mold, say for example, in the shape of a star. Hell take the glowing glass on the end of the rod and stretch it by pulling on both sides to create a long rod with a small diameter. While the canes diameter shrinks, it retains its shape. This process of stretching the glass allows the artist to create a cane with a lot of intricate detail in a small size. When the rod cools it will be cut into slices to include in a weight.

On the right is one of Drew’s pieces entitled Millefiori Valentine.

This photo shows Parabelle Glass artists Gary and Doris Scrutton at work in their high-tech studio. Gary is heating a paperweight on the end of a pontil rod in an oven. Glass cracks if it cools too quickly, so paperweight artists heat their pieces many times during the process. They also heat the glass to keep it in a malleable molten state so they can work with it.

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This is the Parabelle Glass Triple weight. Parabelle Glass demonstrates their skill in this piece, actually three paperweights fused together, entitled Triple weight.

This is a close-up of a paperweight being heated in the glory hole. They are generally kept at temperatures around 3000 degrees.

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On the right artist Rick Ayotte is creating a flower with glass rods using a torch. This process, called lampwork, requires exceptional talent.

The photo on the left shows Ayotte employing his lampwork skill to create this ocean scene, entitled Midnight Blue.

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On the left Randall Grubb shows the encasement process, putting the lampwork or millefiori inside crystal, is one of the most dramatic parts of the creation process. He then heats the crystal with a torch to keep it molten as he works it around the design.

The design on the right features a unique cylindrical encasement that Grubb pioneered for his Reflections series.

     

The photo on the left shows David Salazar about to knock a paperweight off a pair of pontil rods into a weighting glove. The weight will be placed in a hot oven for at least 24 hours, where its temperature can be slowly dropped. If a weight isnt cooled slowly, it cracks.

On the right, a group shot of David Salazars weights gives you an idea what the successful finished product looks like.

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On the left artist Steven Lundberg gathers a ball of crystal on the end of a pontil rod. Working with molten glass is often compared to a dance because artists need to keep moving the glass on the rod to maintain control of it. Its easy to overlook the difficulties involved with working in a hot liquid medium, such as glass. This picture gives a good idea of the pressures glass artists face.

On the right is an example of a finished piece from Lundberg Studios.

If you like, you can watch a video about how they are made by clicking:

 

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EXAMPLES

So far you've only seen a small amount of modern artistry. Lets look at some more examples of what has been produced over the last 20 years by talented artists.

Paul Stankard  

  

Chris Buzzini                                                                Bob Banford

  

James Parsley                                                       Debbie Tarsitano

  

Barry Sautner                                                              Victor Trabucco

  

Ken Rosenfeld                                                          Perthshire Paperweights

  

Baccarat                                                                     Mayauel Ward

 

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                                            David Graeber                                              Caithness Glass

 

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                         Alison Ruzsa                                     Colin Richardson                                   Mike Hunter

 

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                         Clinton Smith                                   Cathy Richardson                               Peter McDougall

 

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                      Damon MacNaught                                 Jim D'Onofrio                                     John Deacons

 

IN CLOSING…

Of all the glass arts, paperweights are considered the most challenging, and they truly represent the highest achievement in this medium. Their precision and grace are a wonder to behold. When you hold one in your hand and admire the changing magnification of the glass dome, it suddenly seems to come alive. As you rotate the weight, a bouquet of flowers seems to shift as if they were in a gentle spring breeze.

Most paperweight collectors believe that glass paperweights have not received the public recognition they deserve as an art form, and this is probably due to a lack of exposure. However, at least four museums have fine paperweight collections on permanent display, and organizations, such as the Glass Paperweight Foundation, are giving talks like this, to groups like yours, to prevent paperweights from continuing to be such a well-kept secret. Hopefully, this brief introduction has provided you with a new appreciation and understanding of this extraordinary and fascinating art form.

 

 

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