Weights are a glass act
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 shaping and subsequent polishing the dome achieved by rolling it 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. The exact year and origin of the manufacture of the first glass paperweight is not known but the first documented appearance of Pietro’s handiwork can be traced to the Exhibition of Austrian Industry held in Vienna in 1845. Here was a product to put some commercial sparkle back into the business and bosses at the St Louis glassworks were the first to adopt the idea. Clichy was quick to follow, both producing weights in the same year. Baccarat’s entry is marked by weights dated 1846. All three produced numerous strikingly beautiful patterns with A John Ditchfield iridescent paperweight which sold for £220 complicated and highly colourful canes being employed to produce many expensive weights. In addition to Baccarat’s B, 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 before hard-earned cash changes hands.
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 looks like mushrooms were other St Louis hallmarks, 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 those featuring its 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 was the only French glasshouse to be invited to exhibit its 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, Victorian tourists purchased a great many as souvenirs and they continue to turn up in the salerooms. The key to success is being able to recognise them.
Collectors of modern paperweights are drawn to those unique or limited examples produced by Caithness Glass, the Scottish company established in 1961 by the late Robin Sinclair, 2nd Viscount Thurso and John Ditchfield from Blackpool, one of this country’s top glass artists.