The art of glassmaking goes back thousands of years, but the discovery that the addition of minerals like quartz and lead produced glass that was far more transparent, refracted and reflected light when decorated with cut designs, and made a pleasant ringing sound when tapped had to wait until 1708. That was the year that Michael Miller perfected crystal glass, opening a new era in European glassmaking. Crystal glass, which was more substantial than ordinary glass and more challenging to produce, could be used to make far more impressive objects.
The development of this new type of glass began in Central Europe in the 17th century. It was named after natural rock crystal, which in medieval times had been frequently carved into decorative objects, some of which can be seen in European museums. In medieval Europe, there were two important centers of glass making and rock crystal carving: Venice and Bohemia. Venetian glassmaking went back to very early times. In contrast, the region, known as Bohemia (today the Czech Republic) in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, only became famous as a center of glassmaking in the post-16th century, thanks to its rich deposits of raw materials, including potassium, lead and manganese, and extensive forests which provided the firewood required for the kilns and crucibles. Another factor was the region’s strategic position on significant trade roads.
Venice had a considerable head start over Bohemia, and its craftsmen had long excelled in methods of producing colored glass, cut decoration, and glass engraving. When the secrets of these techniques were discovered by Bohemian craftsmen, the Bohemian glass industry eventually overtook Venice in the 19th century. Bohemian crystal became far superior to that of Venice in terms of its brilliance. At the end of the 18th century, Bohemia had begun to produce opal glass in imitation of porcelain, and this, combined with its transparent glass dyes and flawless crystal glass, carried the Bohemian glass industry to new heights during the first half of the 19th century.
From the 18th century onwards, Bohemia exported crystal glass to many European countries, primarily Russia, Spain, Portugal, and Poland, and even further afield to North America. Although the Napoleonic Wars caused central European trade to slump in the early 19th century, the industry was soon flourishing once more, producing an innovative range of crystal glassware. Among these must be mentioned the extraordinary portraits engraved on crystal glass by Dominik Blemann (1800-1856). The golden age of Bohemian glass, which resumed in the 1830s saw Ottoman Turkey and Persia become major customers. Similar articles to the porcelain produced for the Ottoman Empire in Vienna and Saxony in the 18th century were now produced from colored crystal glass.
Traditional forms of tableware used in Turkey and Persia were manufactured specifically for this eastern market. Among many others, these included plates, sugar bowls, dishes for the boiled sweets known as akide, cups, jugs, bottles, jugs with tall conical lids known as dedekülahi, and nargile (water pipes).
This ware was decorated according to Ottoman taste and customs, either with geometric cut patterns or flower motifs, avoiding human and animal figures. As on the porcelain made for the eastern market, gold and silver were used abundantly in the painted decoration on glass, and the small colored motifs and flowers were executed with outstanding artistry. The primary colors used on these objects were cobalt blue, turquoise, a yellow which shone bright green when the light slanted on it, ruby red, pink, emerald green, and milk-white. Cut glass objects were enhanced by knobs in the form of bronze flowers studded with diamonds and other precious stones.
Examples of this type of ware can be seen in the European Glass section at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the Giritli collection of Bohemian crystal. The origin of one group of oriental type opaline glassware in turquoise or pale green made for export to Ottoman Turkey and Persia remains unresolved, with scholars divided as to whether this ware was made in Bohemia, France or Venice.
Bohemia remains an important center of crystal glass making to this day, with the products of factories such as Moser Lobmeyer winning a worldwide reputation. In the last century, Bohemia also launched a new era in crystal chandelier manufacture. Most of the colored or plain crystal chandeliers made for Europe’s palaces, chateaus and mansions originate from Bohemia. Glass was widely used in art nouveau design in the late 19th and early 20th century, and during this period Bohemia became Europe’s third-largest producer of decorative glass. Many beautifully produced and designed examples of this glassware exported to Turkey can be seen in Turkish museums, private collections, and occasionally in antique shops and auctions. The fragility of glass makes it particularly vulnerable, and it is up to us to protect those pieces in our possession for future generations, and to teach our children to appreciate the beauty of antique glass.