Engraver Thomas G. Hawkes and English glassmaker Frederick Carder founded Steuben Glass Works in Corning, N.Y., in 1903. Carder was appointed artistic designer, production supervisor, and marketing director. Throughout his career, he continually experimented with innovative colors and techniques, like layering, acid-etching, and acid-cutting his glass.
In addition to introducing handmade, novel, art nouveau pieces, Carder also invented a new type of iridescent glass which, combining the Latin word for gold and part of a Middle English word for sheen, he named Aurene. Aurene, by a much-abbreviated process, imitates the luminous patina that frequently gilds Roman glass vessels exposed to centuries of contact with humidity or mineral matter. Carder reproduced this iridescence by spraying clear, malleable glass with a metallic chloride, then heating it in a special manner.
Thomas S. Beuchner, director of the Corning Museum of Glass in 1957, observed that this caused the glass surface to crackle into millions of tiny lines “that reflect light like a layer of oil floating on water.”
Although at the time Louis Comfort Tiffany was also producing a similar iridescent glass called Favrile, many consider Carder’s to be more lustrous. Aurene was so distinctive, in fact, that in 1904 its technology earned a patent.
The following year, Carder added cobalt blue to the basic recipe, producing an array of Blue Aurene bowls, vases, decanters, perfume bottles, and candlesticks. He produced a smaller number of these items in green, red and brown Aurene shades as well. All his Aurenes enjoyed wide commercial success.
Steuben Glass Works continued producing art nouveau glass until the advent of World War I.
During the war, however, a dearth of raw material and curtailed transportation caused production to fall considerably. When Corning Glass Works acquired Steuben in 1918, the company, hoping to increase profits, reorganized. Carder, now appointed managing director of the Corning’s “Steuben Division,” continued, as before, to introduce products in hundreds of shades and thousands of shapes, many of which followed classical lines. These included pinkish Rosaline, fragile acid-etched goblets, pieces frothing with “controlled” air bubbles and milky-white and pale green creations dubbed verre-de-soies, or silk glass.
Not all Carder’s pieces were ethereal, however. His stylized single and multi-branched thorny stump vases, for example, rise from rustic glass tree stumps. His fanciful “Grotesques,” handmade, freeform confections in opaque, iridescent, translucent, or transparent glass, blossom improbably into rippling, ruffled rims, often tipped in startling color. Initially, sales boomed.
During the Depression, however, the public’s interest in colored art glass waned. Therefore, when stocks began to pile up, Corning Glass marketed Carder’s products deeply discounted, as factory leftovers. In 1932, the Carder Era came to a dramatic end. Corning’s new management, to the chagrin of Steuben aficionados past and present, destroyed volumes of old-fashioned, “unmarketable” Carder-designed colored stock en masse. Locals dubbed it “The Smashing.” That same year, Corning researchers unveiled a new type of optical glass, 10M. Unlike traditional glass, 10M features a very high refractive index that allows the full spectrum of light, including ultraviolet waves, to pass through it. The result is a brilliant, flawless, colorless lead glass known today as Steuben Crystal. While the company was transitioning to this remarkable new medium, it produced many engraved art deco bowls and vases using traditional, abrasive copper wheel techniques.
The company introduced its first major engraved Steuben Crystal piece, Gazelle Bowl, in 1935. This elegant work of art, designed by Sidney Waugh, features 12 graceful gazelles leaping around a spherical bowl that is balanced on a solid glass base. This was the first Steuben creation to reflect close artistic collaboration between glass designer and glassmaker. It was also the first to display all of Steuben artists’ superior glassmaking techniques, blowing, cutting, polishing, and copper wheel engraving, in a single, collaborative, work.
Gazelle Bowl is on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Similar Steuben creations, massive in size, balanced, proportional, and adorned with elaborate embellishments, soon followed, also winning immediate recognition.
A Steuben heavy-cut crystal vase designed by John M. Gates won a gold medal at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, for example, while other creations garnered awards at the 1939 World’s Fair. From then on, Steuben’s master “gaffers,” teams of glassworkers, cutters, etchers, and engravers, have continued to work closely with company designers, meticulously realizing their artistic visions.
The designers, for their part, strive to reflect the inherent qualities of pure crystal. At Steuben, form does not simply follow function. Often, form is function. Arctic Fisherman, created by James Houston in 1973 and valued at $5,800, is one example. An Eskimo thrusts his harpoon through a hole in the ice – a hefty chunk of Steuben crystal — as engraved fish glide through the depths below.
Mouse and Cheese, created in 1975 and commanding $6,000, is another example of form as function. A golden mouse, tail twitching, perches atop a crystal as swirled and bubbled as a wedge of Swiss Emmental cheese itself. Other Steuben designers have found inspiration in animals, as well. Adventurous souls can “capture” engraved giraffes nibbling acacia leaves for $19,000, or “rescue” endangered-species elephants for $25,000, for example, in Steuben’s African Collection.
Moreover, Steuben releases handsome, new creatures each year. These trademark pieces make ideal collectibles. Contemporary pieces sell for $250 at retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Gearys Beverly Hills.
Those who seek vintage, pre-1933 Carder Era glass need not despair either. Many of his candlesticks, vases, tableware, and perfume bottles, safe in private hands, survived “The Smashing.” Most are identifiable by the word ‘Steuben’ either engraved or acid-etched alongside a signature fleur-de-lis on their bases. Naturally, Carder designs with limited runs like Blue Aurenes, or especially desirable Gold Aurenes, verre-de-soies, Rosaline glass, and Grotesques are highly collectible.
Steuben Glass Resources
Corning Museum of Glass: http://www.cmog.org
The world’ s largest glass museum features the Frederick Carder Gallery, a display of early pieces made at the English firm of Stevens & Williams, many of the objects he designed when he managed Steuben Glass Works between 1903 and 1933, and some works he created in his later years.
Carder Steuben Club Web Site: Collector Club site featuring guides to spot fake Steuben pieces, want ads and audio recordings of Carder himself.
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