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Twentieth-Century Glassmakers

The Translucent Masterpieces of Twentieth-Century Glassmakers Offer Collectors a Shimmering Array of Choices
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

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Gallé, whose shop was located in the northeast French town of Nancy, started as a purist in the 1870s, preferring to make glass that was clear or lightly tinted, in shapes that had been around for millennia. By the 1880s, however, he had begun to feel a need to break away from the traditional styles. In his Ecrits pour L'Art, from 1884 to 1889, he wrote, "My own work consists above all in the execution of personal dreams: to dress crystal in tender and terrible roles, to compose for it the thoughtful faces of pleasure or impose upon it qualities I should like to have in order to incarnate my dream and design....I have sought to make crystal yield forth all the tender or fierce expression I can summon when guided by a hand that delights in it."

In form, Gallé's dreams were largely floral. He had studied chemistry and served as an apprentice to a glassmaker, but he had also studied botany and had a sincere and profound love of plants. In his glasswork, he wanted to capture the beauty and wildness of nature, its flowing, asymmetrical, and random character. In Gallé's hands, that meant floral form vases with curling bases and slender, sleek lines full of undulating curves. Cylindrical vases were encased at the base in leaves and fronds. Flowers and beetles protruded from the smooth glass surface, adding dimension and depth.

Gallé had a vast array of techniques to draw upon for his expressive designs. Cameo glass, the process of creating a vase, say, in one color and then immersing it in another, had been around for millennia. The second layer could be cut away by using a fast-spinning wheel, leaving a design in relief in the outer layer. Alternately, in acid etching, an acid-resistant finish was painted on the outer layer in the form of a design. When the entire vase was dipped into an acid bath, the acid etched away untreated areas, eating its way down to the first layer.

The glass itself came in different colors, and gold or silver foil could be added to the mix. Gallé filed a patent for the process of marquetry, which involved scooping out a section of a vase and patching in glass of another color. Applications, or chunks of glass in contrasting hues, were attached to a form and worked with a variety of instruments until they were molded into shape.

The effects Gallé achieved were breathtaking. While the forms tended to be simple, the surface of the glass itself was wonderously varied. Wheel carving left thin ridges that, when well lit, revealed ripples of texture. Layers of raised glass that were applied provided decorations--flowers, of course, or insects--in relief, which were also carved. In an exceptional Gallé piece, one can find five or six different surfaces, ranging from ice-smooth to etched or ribbed.

But Gallé wasn't the only one who was turning out these masterpieces. By 1876, the Daum family of Nancy acquired a glass factory by default. Under the direction of Jean Daum, the shop made crystals for watches, but sons Antoinin and Auguste soon turned it into an art-glass haven. Antoinin, more of an artist than his business-minded older brother, saw Gallé's floral works at the 1889 International Exposition in Paris. (This and other contemporary expositions were like moving Epcot Centers that combined science, technology and art.) Antoinin was impressed. A year later, as he lay sick in bed, he began sketching floral decorations for vases and other wares. Soon, works that came out of the Daum workshop were as lively and well crafted as those that emerged from Gallé's studio.

While Gallé and Daum were breaking boundaries in France, Louis Comfort Tiffany, the son of American jeweler Charles Louis Tiffany, was doing the same thing in New York. Tiffany, too, visited expositions and then opened a massive workshop in Astoria, Queens, where his workers were largely given free rein to experiment. Tiffany started with windows and later moved on to lamp shades and the bases they sat on. In 1880, he patented a version of iridescent glass that he called Favrile glass.

Tiffany's work was remarkably refined and elegant. His Favrile glass was more sturdy than its delicate, shimmering appearance would suggest. Generally, Tiffany's vases were more restrained than those of Gallé and Daum, with cleaner lines and less ornate application. His heavier lava vases, with their mottled, encrusted surfaces, seemed to capture the essence of the powerful aftermath of a horrifyingly beautiful cataclysmic event.

Tiffany's initial fame derived from his iridescent glass, but it was for his lamp shades and bronze lamp bases that he achieved historial significance. In 1895, Tiffany worked with Thomas Edison to fashion lighting fixtures for the interior of the Lyceum Theater in New York, and his creations were unlike anything that had ever existed. Where his European Art Nouveau counterparts were completely absorbed in the lilting, sinewy beauty of organic forms, Tiffany rendered his designs in mosaics of flat glass that were cut from sheets and fitted into larger patterns.

The glass itself was extraordinary. Tiffany hired chemists and European glassmakers to come up with a formula for colored glass that would be as translucent as jewels. To depict a leaf, Tiffany might use as many as four pieces of green glass, each in a different shade. For a poppy, hues of crimson would turn into red, then pale rose, then near white. When this glass was lit, it was as if the sun were reflecting off a plant in the early morning.

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