Natural glass has been around since the beginning of time.  Sand (silica), when heated to extreme heats and then cooled makes glass. Volcanic activities and well-placed lightning strikes provided the heat.  This glass is called obsidian. Hard, brittle, sharp.  Earliest man found it and used it as a weapon and tool and crafted it into decorative beads. 

There are several theories on how it became “man made.” ancient roman chronicler, Pliny, wrote that it was the happy accident of a Phoenician (modern Syria) merchant who left a hot pot on a sand covered rock, it melted the sand and when it cooled it had “glazed” the bottom of the pot.  This was a huge advance for mankind as it allowed for better cooking vessels. glazed pottery, which kept the cooked food from killing man,  but most important, created better storage for wine, oil and water.  that allowed those items to be kept long enough to be shipped.  And with desired items that could be shipped came commerce.  It is not surprising that the Phoenicians were the merchant princes of that age.

While present archeologists suggest it was not Phoenicia but Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) where some manner of happy accident took place, the commerce of glass was centered in Phoenicia.  that spread the desire for glass.  The earliest examples of stores of art glass were found in Alexandria, Egypt. that really “ballooned”  with the advent of glass blowing in Tyre (then Rome, now modern Germany).  The art of glass shifted from Alexandria to Rome and settled securely in Venice where it stayed until the rise of the French industry. 

In the 1600’s an Englishman adding lead to his glass mixture, which gave it “sparkle.”  The marriage of glass and light had begun.

The next breakthrough came in France.  It happened coincidently with the country on the biggest up swing since Charlemagne.  The break through was plate glass improving the optics for things like mirrors.   This combined with the addition of lead gave the age light. It is important to remember how dark it was then.  cut glass and mirrors were the equivalent of going from 25-watt bulbs to a 100-watt bulb.  France was feeling its oats and claiming the center of the art world as their own. They began promoting their new glass and the demand was high, they needed to bring the art up to that standard and began to lure the master artists of Venice.  Venice and France fought fiercely over technology and artists.  Meanwhile, the German’s focused on optical glass and lenses, as that was the future of industrial glass making.

The industrial revolution caused in glass-like so many other craft-the beginning of a schism:  Mass produced containers, windows and lenses etc. and glass art.

As mass production took hold. The separation caused a huge burst in art glass, because there was the combination of technology and a vast well of talented artists still trained in the “apprentice to journeyman to master” programs.  These master craftsmen were no  longer needed to make jugs and drinking glasses. This is similar to what happened in Japan with metal artisans after the fall of the shoguns and is even replicated in nature when a plant feels it is in mortal danger, it will burst into flower in the hopes that the seeds from the flower will keep the genus alive.

This too happened with art glass. An explosion of flowers in the hope that some of the seeds would take hold and the genus would survive. Glass, which made commerce possible, would slowly fall victim to it.  Companies that owe there birth to art glass now force it to conform to bottom lines and if they don’t, they are discarded. One by one these companies all of which had a specific knowledge are gone.  Yes examples exist in museums and collections and they can be copied. You can even buy a kit to make a “tiffany” lamp at home. But the art, cannot be copied, that must be handed down. The gift that Louis Comfort Tiffany had was passed down to those who worked under him in his studio.  But a depression and the desire for new allowed those men to be let go and the knowledge to be lost.  Yes someone has bought the name and has examined the process but those are not tiffany lamps those are paint by numbers. Tiffany’s work spoke of the world he lived in as art always does. Were he alive today his work would reflect the world of today.  If his men had been kept on there may have been a few among them who had the spark. And if they had passed that down there may have been a few among them who had the spark.  An exact copy, even one that could fool the experts does not have the spark. 

As important as glass has been to man, in the world there have never been more than a few centers and shining lights in glass.  Here is a list of those that flowered after the industrial revolution. Amazingly for a young country, America had two and they were among the best of the best.  That should make us all proud. We went head to head with countries that had been doing it continuously for over a thousand years.   But that word is “Had.”  They are no more.  Should we have pride in michael Owens of libby Owens for inventing mass produced glass, making it cheaper? Yes. But one does not replace the other.

at the turn of the 20th century these were the worlds fine glass makers:

France:  Baccarat, Lalique, Daum, and Galle.

Venice: the Murano glass works

Austria:  Loetz

Germany: Bohemian

England Waterford

The United States: Tiffany, Steuben.

Yes other countries had glass artists and were known for the artistry of their glass work the carved glass snuff Bottles of china, the glass ball floats of japan, Orrefors of Sweden, but the list above is really all there was from the time when man first used obsidian.

Does this matter?  Yes it does. Steuben was the official gift given by our presidents to the leaders of other nations.  It was a statement.  Embodied in this work, here are the qualities of technology and artistry that best represents the people of the untied states of America to the world.  If that statement is one we can no longer make--It is sad.  The wisdom and knowledge that Louis Comfort Tiffany could have passed down is now forever lost and the fact that what he made goes up and up in value does not compare to what has been lost. Steuben has just closed it doors. The knowledge and wisdom is there and still alive in the remaining master glass artists.  It will fade faster then one can imagine.  Venice and France came close to going to war over master glass craftsman and the wisdom they possessed.  And we just dump them because of the stockholders demands for bottom line profit?  We are not speaking of expensive tableware for the rich but of the talent, artistry and wisdom that is America’s.
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