Origins of Glassblowing
People have manipulated glass, in some shape or form, for centuries. Before our ancestors worked out how to create glass from raw materials, they had already begun using glass that was formed naturally. One such type of glass is called obsidian, which is a type of volcanic rock formed through extreme temperatures. The basic requirements to make glass are sand, lime, magnesium oxide and very high heat. These elements have persisted as the base recipe for glass throughout the years.
Among ancient glass artifacts, some of the oldest dated pieces are believed to have originated around 2500 BC. Since it was still difficult for people at the time to work with glass, they mostly used it for very functional purposes. In the days before glassblowing was developed, hot glass was spread around clay cores to give it shape. After cooling, the clay could be removed, leaving only the glass container. Due to its rarity, glass was limited to the noble and upper classes. In the Middle East, people had begun to use glass for mosaics. Trade routes later transferred this knowledge to other areas, especially Europe.
Glassblowing in Ancient Rome
Even while people in other areas were using naturally-formed glass, it was the Ancient Romans who truly turned glass into an artform. Glassblowing was developed around 50 BC. It completely changed the way people used glass. By being able to blow glass into all sorts of shapes, the Ancient Romans turned glass vessels into household items. Going a step further, they also found ways to decorate glass and mold it into different shapes. It was the perfect combination of aesthetics and functionality.
Arab and East Asian Glassblowing
Although there isn’t a wealth of information about early glassworks in China, we do know that the ancient Chinese created decorative works with glass. They most likely learned about it from glass workers from Persia. In the strict Islamic culture of the Middle East, frivolous items were strictly frowned upon. However, it was a different issue with glass. The ancient Arabs became masters at creating incredibly beautiful and colored creations from glass that were used in homes as well as mosques. Many of their works were so marvelous that they could be mistaken for actual gemstones. In Egypt, people were experimenting with glass enameling. To do this, they would coat the glass with a silver luster before heating it. This would cause the silver to react and change color. By the 1400s when Damascus was conquered by the Mongols, it directly led to a sharp decline in Islamic glass.
Medieval European Glassblowing
Glass production only truly took off in Europe by the Middle Ages. Rather than being used heavily in homes, like the ancient Arabs, it was initially used mostly to create stained glass for churches. Since Venice was the commercial hub that linked east and west, it also became a key area for glass making. The Venetians formed an official guild for glassmakers in the 1200s to help regulate their craft. Even after other European areas came to produce glass on their own, Venetian glass was still famed for its highly skilled and secretive methods. They would manipulate glass to form rosaries, mirrors, and even clear or colored glass.
Renaissance Europe Glassblowing
In 1612, a Florentine priest published a book named, L’Arte Vetraria, or The Art of Glass. It leaked all of the Venetian’s closely guarded secrets on glass production, blowing, and decorating. Glass production in several other key areas such as England, France, Spain, and Germany was quickly rising. Based on the glassblowers’ locations, they managed to find different ways of creating glass by using local raw materials.
By this point, people were also finding uses for glass in other areas, such as eyeglasses and telescopes. Diamond engraving was another area that was gaining popularity. In Bohemia, some glassblowers developed a way to create glass that was completely clear. With all of these developments, glass from the north of Europe was regarded as more valuable than that of the Venetians.
During most of this time, wood ash was traditionally used in glass production. However, during a wood shortage in England, local glassblowers turned to coal instead. They created a dark green glass that was called black glass. Black glass was found to be very useful for thick containers that could block light. This new creation threw England at the top of the bottle production market.
Near the end of the 1600s, an Englishman living in Venice created a way of using lead in his glass production. This new formula was clearer and made it easier to work with glass. Since the resulting glass was also heavier, people began to focus more on shape rather than decoration. The Germans made the next impact in the glass production industry when they unveiled their method of glasscutting in England. The method became popular and it was soon adopted by the English. The early settlers took their knowledge of glass production to the New World. Even so, they found it difficult to distribute or export glass made in the Americas. Eventually a glass factory was built in Maryland near the late 18th century. American glass production experienced a rocky start, but it did rally during the 19th century. A landmark event was celebrated in 1903 when an inventor called Michael Owens created a machine that could duplicate a glassblower’s efforts. This allowed the factory to churn out mass amounts of light bulbs.
Glassblowing in Modern Times
During the mid-1800s, Biedermeier sensibilities emphasized arts in a way that made them accessible to common people instead of only nobles. The glass works that resulted from this era were often in shocking hues, with intricate engraving and cutting. With the experimentation in styles, glass became more commonplace in household settings. It was not only used for windows and jars, but also for drinking glasses and dishes. The showy Biedermeier glass aesthetics soon changed in the coming years.
During the 20th century, glass houses saw the need to hire artistic designers in addition to their technical workers. This change in mentality altered the types of glasswork that was produced. It introduced influences from different cultures around the world, as well as from different eras. During the 1960s, it became more common to find glass artists experimenting with glass as an art form, rather than working on glass in a factory. This quickly increased the different styles and techniques of glasswork. Although glassworkers traditionally held their methods very secretively, the communal atmosphere of glass artists opened up this area. Instead of hiding their techniques, people began to share knowledge, collaborate, and improve on each other’s methods. Even today, glass workers continue to find new and better ways to create wonderful forms of glass that are both beautiful and useful.