Crafted by artisans and valued by collectors, cut glass is patterned entirely by hand with the use of rotating wheels and other cutting tools. Cut glass has three distinct characteristics: heftier weight than similarly sized leaded glass; brilliance and clarity unmatched by machine-pressed imitations; and it makes a bell-like ring when lightly tapped. Once you've identified a piece as cut glass, however, determining its pattern can be overwhelming. Of the thousands of cut-glass patterns in the world, only a small percentage has been identified definitively. Fortunately, your piece may provide clues to help you ascertain its pattern.
Look for a signature or maker's mark. Old cut-glass pieces often have a mark etched in acid or a paper label denoting the house in which it was made. Meriden, however, never signed its cut glass, which may be clue in itself.
Determine the motif. Motifs function as building blocks for designers. Combined with mitred outlines, they create patterns for glass cutters. Examples of motifs include bull's-eye, pinwheel, diamond, hobnail and cane. Some patterns have only one motif while others have five or six. With careful inspection, and armed with a companion reference guide, you can determine your piece's motif. Motif identification is an important step in figuring out the designer and pattern.
Browse through reference books. J. Michael Pearson's "Encyclopedia of American Cut and Engraved Glass," for example, is a well-regarded, three-volume set that categorises numerous patterns. Although the set is out of print, and hard to find, it may be well worth the effort spent tracking it down.
Research the American and European glass houses that produced cut glass pieces. European makers include Baccarat, Lalique, Val St. Lambert, Cristal d'Arques and Waterford. American makers include Dorflinger, Hawkes, Egginton, Jewel, Libbey, Meriden, Hoare, Sinclaire and Tuthill. Each house has distinct patterns, many of which are documented in books.
Contact the American Cut Glass Association (ACGA) or visit the organisation's website. The ACGA publishes a journal, holds an annual conference, has regional chapters you can join and has a committee that tries to determine members' cut-glass patterns, at no charge.