Since the first time glass was created by heating and fusing a mixture of sand, soda and lime, recipes have been written down in countless variations. The optimal temperature, the best techniques, ideal additives—all are the product of thousands of years of collective effort that has spanned the entire world.
The exact origins of glass are unknown, but it is widely believed that the Phoenicians, a group of people in ancient Mesopotamia (now Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Israel) invented glass as early as 3000 B.C. In its earliest days, the potentials of this new material were not immediately realized, and the initial stages produced only beads and other small objects, formed or cast using simple tools. A technological breakthrough around 1550 B.C. led to the creation of the first glass vessels, and the glass industry began. This innovation was known as the “core-forming” technique—craftsmen dip a core mold of compacted sand into molten glass, and then turn the mold so the molten glass adhered to it. Then, while still malleable, the glass covered mold could be rolled out and shaped. This method remained the foremost process for the manufacturing of vessels for the next 1,500 years.
The next major breakthrough in glass making did not occur until the first century B.C., when the art of glass blowing was discovered. It is attributed to the craftsmen in the eastern parts of the Mediterranean. Blowing glass brought a complete change in the industry, allowing the glass workers to engage in artistic freedom and find inventive and creative ways of using glass. It is assumed that the first glass blowing tubes (blowpipes) were created from clay. However, due to problems with heat conduction, they soon created metal blowpipes. Artists were then able to create even larger and more robust pieces.
The Romans played a significant role in spreading the art of glass making. With its territorial conquests, active trade relations, and political and economic maneuvers, the Roman Empire created the ideal conditions for glass making to thrive. They were also the first to implement glass in architectural design. Artists began producing luxury glass items for export during this thriving economy. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire came the decline of cultural indulgences, and the industry began to decline.
By the eighth century, Venice had become the epicenter of glass making. Artists drew largely from the techniques and ideas of their counterparts in the Eastern Mediterranean areas, North Africa and the Middle East. Venice was thriving, with an exorbitant number of glass makers (8,000 at one point), and soon a law placed a ban on imports of foreign glass and a ban on foreign glass makers relocating to Venice. After problems with fires in Venice, the authorities transferred glass making to the island of Murano. This way, the fires were more easily contained, but more importantly, so were the artists’ skills and secrets. By the fifteenth century, Murano glass makers began to expand their creative range. By using quartz sand and potash from sea plants, they developed a new type of glass, called cristllo, or “crystal.” This type of glass was extremely fragile and could only be engraved using a diamond point. This remained popular throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth century.
In the seventeenth century, French glass makers developed a new means for producing plate glass. By pouring molten glass onto a special table, then rolling it flat, craftsmen were able to create a glass whose optical qualities were sufficient to use as mirrors. France gained notoriety with this procedure, and soon began to promote its own glass industry, attracting glass experts from Venice. However, trade routes soon undermined Venice’s strategic trading advantages, and its economic status began to decline. It was not until 500 years later (between 1860 and 1960) that Murano resurfaced as the leader in decorative glass creation.
In the twentieth century, artists grew even more inventive and more creative, incorporating the use of glass into the areas of science, medicine, and engineering. New technological advances allowed artists to make glass unaided, without the factory environment. This was known as “studio glass art.” Artists such as Hans Godo Frabel and Harvey Littleton embraced this new potential for glass as they both began to experiment artistically. With newfound autonomy, the individual artist was able to alter all aspects of creation, from design through signature. And even though most “studio glass” artists will make a very limited number of pieces in their lifetime, they are no doubt one of a kind.
Thousands of years have shaped the art of glass making into what it is today. Technological evolution played as much a role as political and economic factors—progressing the craft and ensuring its evolution. The rich and powerful history of glass making has transcended boundaries and transcended cultures, integrating the world at large.