When we see a beautiful cut-glass vase with a hefty price tag on the table of a fine gift store, we usually don’t stop to think about the thousands of years of history that would ultimately give rise to that object.
The immediate association that comes to mind for most people when they think of glass in the context of fine art and craftsmanship are the extraordinary examples of stained glass windows and murals adorning the great Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic churches and cathedrals dating from the 6th to the 14th centuries.
But the history of glass art and art glass adornment predates 3500 BCE when artisans used obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass, in jewelry, cutlery, beads, and arrows. Governments also used obsidian as coinage.
The earliest record of man-made glass dates back to approximately 3500 BCE in Eastern Mesopotamia and Egypt. Man-made glass was itself difficult to manufacture due to the intensely high heat required to melt and shape it. When one considers that temperatures of 3,200 degrees must be achieved in order to turn the surprising combination of sand, sodium carbonate, and lime into the glistening, airy substance we know of as “glass,” it is fairly amazing that early civilizations were able to manufacture the substance at all.
From there, the use of glass would cycle back and forth. Centers of glassmaking throughout history include Syria, Egypt, and Greece until arriving at another pinnacle during the Roman Empire when artisans would use glass for vessels such as goblets and pitchers. Eventually, Syrian artisans developed the technique of glass blowing around the first century A.D.
That was Then, This is Now
Over two millennia of advances in glass manufacturing hit a watershed moment in 1962 in Toledo, OH, when Harvey Littleton, considered the “Father of the Studio Glass Movement,” demonstrated the use of glassblowing by utilizing a small furnace to melt the glass.
The technology and technique enabled individual artists to use glass as an art medium. Soon after, universities created accredited programs in glass art-making.
But it is not as if the only techniques for creating glass art involve heat. A number of important “cold techniques,” such as polishing, cutting, engraving, grinding, etching, staining, and sculpting are all used by artisans to create beautiful glass objects.
Serious contemporary artists work with glass as their primary medium. Artists, such as Dale Chihuly, Hans Op de Beek, and many others are creating fine art pieces that range from large public installations to representational sculpture and abstract, conceptual artwork.
In addition to fine artists, contemporary artisans are making spectacular glass objects in which it is difficult to tell whether or not the primary function is practical or as an objet d’art. Exceptional glass art collections can be found through high-end retailers that exhibit both qualities at once.
Of course, not all glass rises to the level of high art, nor need it.
Since the creation of the chandelier and the Tiffany lamp, some of the most arresting and effective forms of glass adornment inside the home come in the form of lighting. An even less obvious way to bring a greater sense of polish to your home is the use of simple glass frames and mounts in the context of personalized wall art.
The use of glass in your picture frames can make a picture wall appear more finished and refined, creating a lovely effect without a huge expense.
Home decor is not the only context in which glass adornment can be used to great effect.
Since before 3500 BCE, obsidian, specifically black obsidian, has never gone completely out of style. Today, among the most widely used stones in jewelry, and referred to as a “gemstone” by jewelry aficionados, obsidian rings, earrings, amulets, and bracelets can serve as stunning and sophisticated accessories despite being relatively inexpensive.
The use of glass in jewelry doesn’t stop with obsidian. Glass jewelry, in general, is “on trend” and becoming increasingly popular, with celebrities and major designers promoting glass as a versatile material for whimsical, yet affordable jewelry.
Increasingly, women are purchasing “eco-friendly” jewelry, baubles, bangles, and beads that frequently utilize glass in their design as affordable birthday gifts for friends.
Glass — The Invisible Colossus
When we think of great material goods that define opulence, we tend to think of gold and silver. Or we think of precious gemstones such as diamonds.
Granted, as a material, glass is relatively inexpensive in comparison to these symbols of wealth and luxury. Since so much glass is either clear or nearly clear, we do not think about how it dominates contemporary life as a material object.
Perhaps with the exception of cement and concrete, glass is perhaps the most ubiquitous material known to modern society. Unless a window of our home or car breaks, or we cut ourselves trying to dispose of a tumbler that fell to the floor and shattered, we tend to take glass for granted. And yet it adorns our great cities, sheathing the architectural bones of skyscrapers. It lets light into what would otherwise be dark and uninviting spaces.
We drink from it. We eat off it. We stare into it, checking our appearance. We use it to protect our cell phone screens and cover our baked goods. But we rarely notice any of this.
So, the next time you see a beautiful glass object or glass adornment; something that takes your breath away, let it serve as a reminder to you of how important this material is to modern life and our enjoyment of it.