Glass Paperweights: A Unique Art Form of Art
By the late Jan Rutland who served as Executive Director of the National Bottle Museum until her passing in October 2010
The first paperweights created have been attributed to the St. Louis factory located in the Vosges Mountain Region of France in about 1820. These were crude and rough forms made from cullets and scrapes. The first dated paperweights recorded are those signed and dated “S.L. 1845”. In the same year, Venetian glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia also produced a dated paperweight of artistic merit. The year 1845 therefore is considered by many to be the beginning of the classic period of paperweight production which lasted until around 1860. The paperweights produced in that time period at the St. Louis factory, Le Compagnie des Cristalleries de Baccarat in the same region, and in the old city of Clichy, a suburb of Paris, are still considered to be the finest examples ever made. Exquisite paperweights were also made in various English glass houses at Bristol, Naisea and Stourbridge and at the Whiteface Glass manufactory of James Powell & Sons, London.
Some of the best American paperweights were produced at Sandwich, by New England Glass Co. and by John J. Gilliland in his Brooklyn, NY factory. Many of the finest of the Sandwich paperweights were created by Nicholas Lutz who came from St. Louis, France. The finest from the New England factory were made by Francois Pierre of France who is said to have served his apprenticeship at Baccarat.
The Mount Washington Glass Works, originally established in So. Boston, also made superlative paperweights. In 1866 Mt. Washington was acquired by Wm L. Libby and in 1868 moved to New Bedford where it later became part of the Paitpoint manufacturing Co. Between 1863 and 1912, quantities of paperweights were made at Whitall, Tatum & Co. in Millville, NJ.
Many of the techniques and designs employed then, and yet today, are many centuries old. “Millefiori” is a common design in which hundreds of glass canes are gathered together to form a design under a clear glass dome. The name is Italian for “a thousand flowers” and was first used in paperweights in the 19th century, but the technique it describes dates back to ancient Egypt.
Most paperweights are created on a base or plaque of glass, and clear glass is applied over the top of the design. Sometimes the clear glass is built up layer by layer, with surface decoration applied to each layer. In the Millefiori” designs, slices of glass canes are arranged on the base plaque.
Twentieth century paperweight artist often employ a process called “lampworking” to create designs. Objects such as flowers, leaves, birds and insects are created in three dimensions from glass rods and tubes heated in the flame of a torch. These are arranged on the base plaque of the paperweight, which is then encased in clear glass.
The undisputed master of 20th century paperweights is Paul Stankard of Mantua, NJ. A botanist by training, his inspiration is taken from the woodland flowers which surround his studio. He began making floral paperweights in 1971 and was immediately recognized a s one of the world’s leading glass artists. He has developed his own techniques to achieve an unsurpassed combination of clarity or crystal, range of color, and delicacy of glasswork. More recent works are biomorphic in nature, depicting the roots of plants as well as the flowers, and incorporating human and animal forms in the designs, a mythological theme often seen in the old German woodcuts.
Contemporary, 21st century American paperweights represent the work of artists from coast to coast, and employ myriad techniques dating from the past, as well as experimental techniques and the very latest developments in glass chemistry. Some of today’s most beautiful paperweights are signed: Josh Simpson, Eikholdt, Correia, Abelma Studios, Orient & Flume, Lundberg Studios, Paul Stankard, Debbie Tessitarno, Bictor Trabucco and many others. Many are numbered, limited editions. If you are going to collect paperweights with an eye to investing, choose signed, dated, numbered, limited editions. Prices can reach five figures or more, but many are priced in the one to five hundred dollar range. If you are going to collect for the joy of ownership, and the pleasure in viewing, follow your heart and indulge in whatever inspires you. You will never regret it.