by Christopher Proudlove©
The paperweight sitting on my desk is something of an excuse for one. It’s a cheap Victorian novelty job with a picture of an elephant stuck on the bottom, the distinctly odd-looking creature with its trunk wrapped around a zoo keeper. But its appeal lies in its oddness. Clearly the man who drew the elephant had never been to a zoo in his life.
Quality 19th century glass paperweights, on the other hand, usually sell for around £300, but the one illustrated here is something entirely different. It sold for a staggering £10,000, underlining the fervour with which collectors chase the rarities by the three French leading makers: La Compagnie de Cristalleries Baccarat, at Baccarat and the Cristallerie de St. Louis, at Louis-les-Bitche, both in the Lorraine area of France and makers of the weight illustrated – the Cristalleries de Clichy, just outside Paris.
Key to their success lay in the term millefiori, literally “a thousand flowers” and the adaptation of the process by one Pietro Bigaglia. A member of an old Venetian family of glass artists, he is generally credited with the manufacture of the first glass paperweight in 1845.
The Venetians had been making millefiori glass since the 15th century. Briefly, and in its simplest form, this involved fusing together rods of different coloured glass which were then reheated and stretched. The resulting long, thin stick was then chopped into dozens of short sticks or canes, numerous colour combinations of which were possible.
To make a paperweight, Pietro placed a selection of the canes in a mould in the desired pattern and fused them within a globule of clear molten glass held by a steel rod called a pontil. The dome was formed by shaping the molten glass to cover the exposed canes, the magnification effect being enhanced by the shaping and subsequent polishing achieved by rolling the dome over a wet, wooden block. Once cut from the pontil rod, the area around it was similarly smoothed and polished to form the flat base of the weight.
It sounds simple but, in truth, it was a highly skilled and time-consuming process. Recognition came when a quick-thinking representative of the then ailing French glass industry saw Pietro’s efforts at a Viennese exhibition. Here was a product to put some commercial sparkle back into the business. The St Louis glassworks was the first to adopt the idea, although Clichy and Baccarat were quick to follow. Soon, French genius and artistry had overtaken the comparatively simple Bigaglia weights.
Numerous strikingly beautiful patterns were devised with complicated and highly colourful canes being employed to produce many expensive weights. Some rare examples even include dates and initials, often hidden in the intricate designs. Earliest dated weight was made in 1846, while one I’ve was dated 1853.
Baccarat weights sometimes include a letter B, while Clichy used a particular rose-shaped cane as a trademark, occasionally set with the letters C L. St Louis weights can be found bearing the initials S L. Bear in mind, however, that dated and marked weights are rarities. The authenticity of those in which such features appear to be too good to be true should be questioned with an expert before hard-earned cash is exchanged for one.
The expert would also be best able to point out the distinct characteristics of colouring and design employed by the three glass companies. St Louis, for example, specialised in a coloured overlay technique that covered the clear glass weight with blue, pink or green glass. The layer was then cut with windows, or “printies” to give them their technical term, through which the pattern or glass flowers in the centre of the weight could be seen.
Crossed garlands of millefiore and canes arranged in a way that look like mushrooms were other hallmarks of St Louis weights, while tightly packed canes covering the base, known as “close millefiore” was popular with Baccarat, as were butterflies. Clichy, on the other hand, excelled at flowers, particularly their rose trademark, attractive swirl designs and an easily identifiable moss green ground often studded with canes arranged in concentric circles.
Arguably the finest makers, Clichy were the only French glasshouse to be invited to exhibit their paperweights at the Great Exposition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and again, at the New York Crystal Palace in 1853. As a result, a great many were purchased as souvenirs by Victorian tourists and they continue to turn up in the salerooms. The key to success is being able to recognise them.
Another rarity you might care to search out features a green snake with red markings coiled around the weight. The creature sits on canes arranged to represent rocks or latticino, a lace-like cane arrangement either in a corkscrew swirl or as broken pieces known as “upset muslin.” Even rarer versions have not a snake but a salamander.
If early French paperweights are out of your reach, versions produced in Bohemia, America and this country can come cheaper. Talented Englishman William T Gillander founded the New England Glass Co in America in 1853 and Frederick Carder founded the Steuben Glassworks at Corning, New York, in 1903. Both made paperweights in the UK and US but don’t expect the same quality as the French. Failing that, you could buy new ones – one day they’ll be collectors’ items just like their great-grandfathers.
Pictures show, top: A fine Clichy paperweight sold recently for £10,000
Below: Six of the best: left to right, top: a St Louis weight, the bouquet centred by an African violet with a background of white latticino; a miniature Clichy weight decorated with stylised flowers.
Middle: a pretty St Louis bouquet weight, the flowers encircled by an unusual border of pink and white spiral twist latticino; a St Louis weight with a tiny bouquet in the centre which is magnified when viewed through any of the six facetted windows.
Bottom: a stylish Baccarat weight with star-cut base, the dome decorated with a Marguerite in bloom flanked by two buds; a Baccarat Clematis weight, also with a star-cut base
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