Fine glass paperweights, created to keep papers from flying about in drafty rooms, are among the most popular collectibles. Early ones were likely any eye-catching pebbles that came to hand. As letter writing became increasingly popular, however, members of the European upper class sought more appealing weights to grace their lavish desk sets.
In response, glassworkers created shiny, heavy, decorative — yet functional — domes. Some, known as end-of-the-day ones, may have simply enclosed bits and bobs of glass swept up from workshop floors. Others, like those of master Venetian glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia that were exhibited at the 1845 Vienna Industrial Exposition, featured an array of artistic elements based on lost skills of ancient Egypt and Rome.
Bigaglia’s domes were often “scrambles,” jumbles of fanciful canes created by meticulously patterning colored glass threads in hollow glass cylinders. After heating and drawing these cylinders pencil-thin, they were cut (much like slicing refrigerator cookies) into thin discs. As a result, each disc displayed its particular spiral, silhouette, or millefiori (“thousand flowers”) pattern.
Next, these discs were then carefully cushioned on molded, molten, round glass bases, then adorned with swirling glass ribbons, milk-white filigree, and lustrous, gold or copper-flecked aventurine inclusions. Once completed, these early paperweights were covered with thick layers of simple, un-magnifying molten glass.
Over time, however, heavier paperweights, produced in Bohemia (today, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland), surpassed Venetian ones in popularity. Yet like them, many were millefiori weights featuring numerous colorful, close-packed canes in pleasing, posy patterns. Other Bohemian pieces featured canes loosely arranged, encircling large central canes, or “floating” within mica-flecked green, or clear glass domes.
After earning wide acclaim at the London 1851 Great Exhibition and subsequent world fairs, these small, relatively affordable works of art became exceedingly fashionable among the rising middle class. However, many, rather than to weight wayward papers down, were sought solely for their beauty. Besides, unlike desk-set quill pens, inkpots, and blotters, these attractive, ultimate accessories brought flowers and other aspects of spring and summer indoors — even in the depths of winter.
As demand for weights grew, prestigious French fine glassworks, especially Clichy, Baccarat, and Saint-Louis, competed to create fine crystal, luxurious designs. The most collectible ones, created during a span of ten to fifteen years, date from the mid-1800s. Many, though unmarked, can be identified by signature, designs and colors.
Clichy weights, known by complex canes and soft, rich palettes, often feature dynamic, lush carpeted tuffs, continual loops, spiraled ribbons, pleats, or garlands. Scores feature colorful candy cane swirls. Others featured realistic, lampworked flowers, created by manipulating heated and re-heated colored glass threads over lamps or open flames.
Most Clichys, however, depict millefiori cane designs. Some, set in large, signature C-shaped scrolls, encircle pansy, primrose, pear, plum, or chamomile blossom millefiori motifs. Others feature a single cane marked with the letter C or an easily identifiable floral image known as a “Clichy rose.” Clichy cane patterns, like all produced at the time, were exceedingly tiny. Due to their magnifying domes, they appeared considerably larger.
Like Clichy, Baccarat lead crystal weights are famed for superior sparkle, quality, and design. In addition to classic round domes, the company produced distinctive faceted, pedestal, and mushroom-shaped models. Many featured millefiori canes set in all-over scrambles, random designs, or loose-pack patterns set against filigree or swirling grounds.
Some boasted close packed millefiori canes (some cleverly concealing production dates or identifying initials) fashioned into butterfly, wreath, honeycomb, or concentric shapes. Other Baccarat weights combined millefiori canes with dominant lampworked images of dahlias, primroses, anemones, strawberries, insects, or snakes. Garland weights, which feature intertwining clovers created from variously hued canes, were another Baccarat specialty.
Saint-Louis, another French company, produced paperweights in close-pack, carpet, scramble, and millefiori cane patterns — sometimes depicting plums, pears, cherries, apples, or flowers. Their “Crown” weights, with alternating filigree and twisted glass ribbons radiating from a dominant millefiori cane “crown,” however, were a Saint Louis trademark. So were their single, dark yellow canes and tiny cross-sectioned ones depicting fiendish “dancing devils.”
The Saint-Louis company, like many others, also produced popular “sulphide” paperweights encompassing tiny, porcelain cameos. Many portray animals or flowers. Others, commemorating notable people or events, were carefully copied or cast from coins, sculptures, or medallions.
During the same era, glassworks in Italy, Belgium, and Bohemia also produced high-quality sulfide, millefiori, and silhouette paperweights. So did a number of English glassworks, including Apsley Pellatt, George Bacchus & Sons, and Whitefriars.
Around 1860, most quality European paperweight production drew to a close in favor of more profitable pieces, like crystal chandeliers and tableware. A decade later, however, the Pantin company, based in Paris, briefly created a number of elegant, highly collectible, highly costly pieces. Many feature three-dimensional designs in lively shades. For example, their rare, magnum, slithering-salamander weight, which realized $57,100 at auction in 2010, glows with striking red, yellow, black, and white detail against forest-green foliage.
In the 1920s, the Ysarts, a family of traditional Spanish glassworkers, revived paperweight production in Scotland. Many featured classic concentric millefiori designs. Others were formed by rolling molten glass balls over patterned fragments of crushed colored glass, then enclosing them in clear crystal. Because local glassworks were founded and folded through much of the twentieth century, Scottish weights appeared under a variety of labels, including Monart, Vasart, Strathearn and Perthshire. Across the Continent, glassworks, like Kosta Boda, Lalique, Whitefriars and Caithness Glass, also produced fine, collectible paperweights.
Americans became passionate about paperweights around 1853, when Clichy displayed “13 crystals, flint and crown glass discs” at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition. Initially, skilled immigrant craftsmen at Boston and Sandwich Glass, Mount Washington, and Gillinder & Sons, for instance, produced similar, French-style paperweights.
Over the years, however, several uniquely American styles emerged. Several southern New Jersey glassworks, for example, produced full-blown, three-dimensional, amazingly naturalistic tulip and rose weights, created with groundbreaking iron crimps that forced shapes and colors into clear glass balls. The New England Glass Company, in addition to traditional models, created transparent beauties encasing blown-glass apples and other enticing fruits. Yet by the turn of the century, American paperweights also fell from fashion.
“Better American weights [of this era] rarely attained the precision and quality of their French counterparts,” explains the Glass Paperweight Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. “They are easily distinguishable from the French weights, and appear somewhat primitive in comparison. To many collectors, however, they are all the more endearing because of these differences.”
Since the mid-20th century, when much American artistic glassmaking moved from factory to studio, artists have been creating paperweights (now commonly known as orbs) through a range of exciting, innovative techniques. Chris Buzzini, for instance, by combining flamework, torchwork, mosaic, and cold lamination, creates very fine, clear orbs depicting delicate florals.
Paul Stankard, another studio artist, blows and sculpts molten glass into realistic and fanciful wonders of nature. A particularly charming example depicts an ant crawling through bright botanicals, their root-figures wittily inscribed fertile, seeds, and glass. Other Stankard weights feature flameworked reproductions of complex ecosystems suspended in clear, unconventional crystal cubes or rectangles.
Due to cleaner materials, better equipment and advanced techniques, most contemporary orbs are nearly flawless. Created in limited numbers and marketed by their creators, specialty dealers, or at auction, they typically command several hundred to many thousands of dollars.
What to look for
More serious collectors, however, covet European paperweights dating from 1845 through 1860, especially those attributed to Clichy, Baccarat or Saint Louis, with known provenance. Though an estimated 75,000 were produced, apparently only 25,000 to 30,000 of these gems have survived. Since many are held in museums and private collections, those on the market are becoming not only increasingly rare but increasingly costly.
In addition to rarity, size and condition also affect paperweight values. Since most measure 2-1/2 to 3-1/4 inches, miniatures and magnums are generally more collectible. Because dome size affects magnification, so are those with large domes. Besides, large domes with small external imperfections, like chips, flecks, scratches, or nicks, can be polished to perfection. However, those with internal flaws, like design debris, tilted canes, or unintentional bubbles, are clearly less desirable. Weights featuring symmetrical, well-centered designs in attractive shades are particularly popular — especially if they are personally appealing.
Fine glass paperweights may not only hold their value but, over time, appreciate considerably. For example, in 1925, reveals the Glass Paperweight Foundation, a lot of 82 paperweights realized a total of $588 at auction. That’s about $7 each. In 1990, Sotheby’s auctioned the remarkable Clichy "Basket of Flowers” for $258,000, the highest price ever realized for a paperweight.
Still, scores of alluring examples can be found for well under $1,000 each, so even beginning collectors can pursue their passion for paperweights.
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