Thursday, October 8, 2009

A History of Glass Making

Glass art around the Nourot Glass Studio is considered as one of the hallmarks of human evolution. Art works are made to inform about life as we know it; to explain how we feel about beauty and value and simply to adorn our homes.

Vases that are made of glass were made to satisfy our craving for beauty and imagination while providing adornment to our living spaces.

Humans have been using techniques to make glass for vases and other adornments since the dawn of history, with the earliest evidences dating back to more than three thousand years ago, found in Mesopotamia.

The manufacturing techniques used for making the glass vases as we know them today, however, were inherited from the Romans. Trading and commerce in the Roman Empire has made the use of glass vases popular among the citizenry, ranging from clear glass to colored crystal, and this prompted glass makers to develop more sophisticated techniques for creating crystal and glass vases. Related manufacturing techniques created for more ornate and more beautiful crystal and glass vases are enameling, gliding and staining. The skill achieved by glass makers during the Roman times is embodied in the world-famous Portland Vase, a vase made of violet-blue glass with seven white-glass cameo figures.

It's important to remember the special qualities of glass that made it attractive in early history: perfect for holding liquids that might be effected by contact with unglazed surfaces in clay. Glass was overall more pleasing to touch and perhaps even see through, depending on the local ingredients available at the time and place of manufacture way back in history.

Unfortunately, many manufacturing techniques used for creating crystal and glass vases were lost and forgotten during the Middle Ages. Or perhaps with the rise of city-states there was a tendency to rely on local knowledge and materials. Simply, the techniques for making glass were not widely known and often fell out of general knowledge periodically.

The knowledge of glass making were thankfully kept and retained in the island of Murano, then in the Republic of Venice. In fact, the Venetian navy was a source of tremendous support for the glass arts, both bringing in supplies from far flung areas and in exporting the wares of the famed Venetian Masters.The small island north of Venice: Murano has a rich source of pure silica sand. The glass makers of Murano learned how to mix silica sand with soda ash to create their glass used for vases and other adornments. The addition of lead to clarify the clear glass may or may not have been a Venetian invention. Perhaps it was tried in as far away a place as the British Isles. In any event the practitioners of clear glass soon became affiliated with Venetians glass making and the reputation was set. The skill of Murano glass makers gave Venice a monopoly on vases and adornments made from glass and crystal.

Most art historians who have tried to trace the history of glass blowing and the making of glass vessels such as crystal glass are quick to mention the Roman connection in making glass vases a common household name. That is largely because trade within the vast Roman Empire. Secrets were stolen; men were enticed to move to glass making centers with their secrets or perhaps even enslaved because of their knowledge. Roman Culture in any event led to the development of techniques that made it possible for glass vases and other glass items to be manufactured on a wider scale.

Legend has it that the Phoenicians were responsible for the discovery of glass manufacturing, but proofs of its earlier existence have been found in Mesopotamia as early as three thousand years ago. Perhaps it was not so much an invention as a by-product of seasonal or ceremonial bonfire at the beach. Stories exist of a ship wrecked crew burning the remains of their boat and cargo ( a fortuitous combination of soda and minerals) as a signal fire on the beach and the result was hot molten glass.

Manufacturing glass vases and other vessels in Mesopotamia was a tedious process. Known as the core-form method, threads of molten glass are wrapped around a bag of sand or dung tied around a rod. Quickly thrust into the sand as a make shift annealing oven, the result was a pebbly textured small core vessel: like a small narrow bottle. Once the glass has cooled, the bag is scraped out. These glass vessels probably were haphazard successes at first; this tedious process of making glass vases and glass vessels has limited the use to the members of the noble class. In Egypt, only the pharaoh, the high priests, nobles and the rich merchants may possess such glass items.

During the time of the Romans, however, the technique now known as glass blowing was invented. Metal blow rods were used. Not only did glass blowing increase the speed and efficiency of the process by which glass vases and other glass vessels are made, it also improved the quality of the finished product. The process allowed more people, not just the nobles and the rich people, to own a glass vase or any other glass vessel.

Other than this, glass blowing also opened avenues of creativity for glass manufacturers. The cuts made on the mold used for making glass vases and glass vessels left imprints on the finished product, and the cuts could be made in different designs. Early Roman glass blowers also learned to put inlay on the glass vases that would enhance the beauty of the glass.

Today, the art of making glass vases is well represented by the works of American craftspeople. Among those whose work stands out is the Nourot Glass Studio of Benicia, California. The hand blown works by Micheal Nourot are made from a glass formula that has been passed down through the ages in Venice. Each and every work in glass by Nourot is a signed and numbered original. Nourot's Scarlet Nova and Red Satin Glass formulas are his own and are often imitated but never duplicated. The difficulty mixing and melting red formula glass is widely recognized. Cadmium and selenium are the two color forming agents. Nourot is the only contemporary glass studio that has such mastery of the red glass formula.

Others in contemporary glass making are Harvey Littleton, founder of the American Studio Glass Movement, and Charles Lotton, known for his handmade iridescent glass. Other well-known and influential glass artists are René Jules Lalique, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Dale Patrick Chihuly and the Murano-born Lino Tagliapietra.

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