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The oldest man-made glass was found among the artefacts of ancient Middle Eastern civilizations. The glass beads excavated in Ur, Mesopotamia, are believed to be nearly 4500 years old. For centuries up to the birth of Christ, coloured opaque glass was valued as a precious gem and used in the making of the finest jewellery.
Early glass jars were made in a highly complicated process and were treasured like jewels. A clay model attached to a metal rod was dipped repeatedly into molten viscous glass. As soon as enough glass had accumulated around the model, it was allowed to cool and the clay was then removed from the inside.
For centuries the Teutonic countries of Northern Europe imported glass from Mediterranean regions. Its name was derived from the Old High German word for amber, glaesum.
With the introduction of an improved melting technique around 200 B.C., it became possible to melt glass to a lower viscosity. It was discovered that when glass is red hot and molten, it could be blown like a soap bubble through a blowpipe of 1.5 m in length.
The glassblower Õs pipe remains to this day the most important tool in glassmaking. With its invention and the development of newer, more efficient glassmaking techniques during the height of the Roman Empire, this once precious material became an item of daily use. The art of glassmaking flourished and spread. Glassworks started up all over the Roman Empire from Syria to Britain. Even in those early times Roman glassmakers already mastered almost all the important techniques of making and refining glass.
During the period of the migration of the peoples the Roman art of glassmaking declined in Central- and Western Europe. Although glassmakers continued to produce hollow glassware, it was of poor quality due to inferior materials used. Any decoration was applied whilst the glass was still hot from the furnace, cutting and engraving became lost art forms.
In the Eastern Mediterranean countries however, a glassmaking technique comparable to that used by the Romans and the Egyptians survived. Distinct styles of painting glass were developed, first in the Byzantine area and later in the Islamic Empire. In the Middle East glassmaking reached its height during the fourteenth century, but was later to fall into decline.
The Venetians revived and refined many of the Roman techniques of glassmaking and they were the first to discover a way of melting colourless glass. During the thirteenth century Venice became the centre of glassmaking in Europe. The formulae and rocessingechniques were carefully guarded; severe penalties were imposed on glassmakers who betrayed these secrets. In 1291 the glassworks spreading over several kilometres were moved from Venice to the island of Murano. This eliminated the fire risk to the town of Venice and isolated the skilled glassmakers from the outside world. Nevertheless, by 1600, Venetian glassmaking techniques had spread to most European countries and many glassworks were already producing thin-walled goblets on elegantly ornamented stems, once the exclusive domain of Venetian glassmakers.
In seventeenth century Bohemia the development of glassmaking techniques using potash gave rise to the creation of a new type of glassware. The colourless glass was noted for its brilliance and was particularly suitable for cutting and engraving. In fact, it was possible to adapt the technique of cutting rock crystal to this type of glass.
The Baroque period saw the inception of new styles of glassware and ornamentation. Typical of this period are lidded goblets in sparkling, facetted glass, which refract light like a prism into all the colours of the rainbow. Bohemia soon became the centre of glassmaking.
The last important step in the art of making lustrous glass was the invention of lead crystal in England. The exceptional refractive properties of lead crystal endowed fine nineteenth century stemware with the sparkle of cut diamonds.
The short-lived period of Art Nouveau brought about a revolution in glass design. Oriental and floral motifs provided inspiration for flowing shapes and flamboyant decorations in colourful opaque glass.
New styles of glassware were introduced internationally around 1930. Design became more functional and reflected the character of the material itself. The pure beauty of the material is enhanced by a wealth of designs. Contemporary designs are superimposed layers in contrasting colours, textured ornamentation and air bubbles, adding charm and beauty to todays creations in glass.