Glass paperweights are a work of art. They were first made from 1845 to 1860 in Europe and America. Their popularity dipped but came back strong in the 1950s. Glass paperweights are as simple as a glass dome over a photo to swirled modern styles to the extravagant Venetian glass made from rods of many colours. They are highly collectable and can be made with the use of a crucible and glassmaking tools.
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The glass paperweight made an appearance in 1845 at the Industrial Exhibition in Vienna. At the time, it was fashionable to write letters and anything to do with paper and writing was popular. Glass paperweights were shown again at the 1851 World's Fair in London. People lost interest in them around 1855 but they made a great comeback with beautiful colours and simpler methods of making them in the 1950s.
Millefiori paperweights were made with different canes of coloured glass stretched thin and bundled together then covered with a dome of glass that magnified those colours. Millefiori means a thousand flowers in Italian and these paperweights looked just that way. Other paperweights looked as if they had fruits or flowers inside made of coloured glass or had landscapes inside magnified by the domed glass. Simple paperweights made later on had colour added that swirled through the glass orb.
A pontil is a long iron rod on which molten glass is collected from inside a furnace or crucible. The pontil is dipped in the liquid glass then spun and rolled on a flat table called a Marver until the hot glass forms a cylinder. The Millefiori method pressed the cylinder into a mould of a geometric shape like a star, then dipped the shape in colour. The resulting canes were pulled or stretched to the size of a pencil. The canes were bundled and cut into 6-inch sections and heated to fuse. This created a pleasing geometric distribution of the canes to look like bunches of flowers. The paperweight then had more layers of molten glass applied and was shaped into a globe. It was then broken off the pontil.
Modern Swirl Method
In the simpler swirl method, the cylinder is rolled and dipped in bits of coloured glass called frits. It is then fired again to melt the frits. More glass is collected on the rod and it is spun each time to create the swirl effect of the coloured frits. A tool called a jack is used to form a rim at the base where the paperweight will break off and more glass is added. Final shaping is done in a tool called a block that looks like a spoon; the block forms the paperweight to a perfect ball.
The paperweights are broken off the pontil and placed in a heating unit called an annealing oven. If they cool too fast, they will crack and be ruined. The annealing oven allows them to cool gradually over a period of hours until they cool completely.
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