The American Brilliant Cut Glass Association Dazzles Reno

~By Norm Robins~

~Photos and Video by Dana Nollsch~

Our publisher and photographer Dana Nollsch and I spent a few minutes talking to Jim Asselstine today at his convention in the Peppermill Naples Ballroom. Jim is president of the American Brilliant Cut Glass Association and an expert on the subject to put it modestly. We interviewed him in the dealers’ room brimming to overflowing with the most beautiful, dazzling cut-glass imaginable. To walk into that room is to be instantaneously overwhelmed by impressions. One cannot help but have that happen.

After our interview (see it nearby) Dana wandered around the room taking pictures. I told him if he takes more than 200 shots for publication we won’t get this story out in time.

The dealers’ room will be open to the public free Friday and Saturday, July 19th and 20th from 1 to 5 PM. The Association holds its annual conventions all over the U.S. so we don’t know when they will return to Reno. This will be our only chance to see this spectacularly beautiful collection for quite a while. It is truly a must-see both for its fascinating history and its dazzle.

American Brilliant Cut Glass

Condensed from a publication of the American

Cut Glass Association by John C. Roesel

The American Cut Glass Association is holding their convention at the Peppermill in Reno. On Friday and Saturday, July 19th and 20th they will open their brilliant cut glass to the public in the Naples Room. Here is a condensation from Roesel’s essay for that Association:

3,500 Years of Glass

Glass, that remarkable substance born of sand, alkali and fire, has fascinated and served humankind for more than 3,500 years – ever since some long-forgotten Middle Eastern artisan stumbled upon a way to control its manufacture. From quite beautiful luxury items prized by the pharaohs, glass has evolved into highly sophisticated functional uses deeply imbedded in the fabric of our twentieth century civilization. One doesn’t have to look beyond the confines of his own household to realize the vast variety of ways that glass serves everyday needs.

Glass used decoratively can take many forms. It can be made opaque or transparent, clear or colored, brittle or soft, durable or fragile. It can be molded or blown, cut, engraved, enameled or painted. In the hands of an artist, it becomes a medium that permits an almost limitless variety of techniques in the quest for a finished object of great beauty.

“Cut Glass” Defined

Let’s single out only one decorative technique, explore its demands and scope, and perhaps learn to admire and appreciate the end product. Let’s limit our attention to “cut glass”, which must be carefully defined. “Cut glass” is glass that has been decorated entirely by hand by use of rotating wheels. Cuts are made in an otherwise completely smooth surface of the glass by artisans holding and moving the piece against various sized metal or stone wheels, to produce a predetermined pleasing pattern. Cutting may be combined with other decorative techniques, but “cut glass” usually refers to a glass object that has been decorated entirely by cutting.

Cut glass can be traced to 1,500 B.C in Egypt, where vessels of varying sizes were decorated by cuts made by what is believed to have been metal drills. Artifacts dating to the sixth century B.C. indicate that the Romans, Assyrians and Babylonians all had mastered the art of decoration by cutting. Ever so slowly glass cutting moved to Constantinople, thence to Venice, and by the end of the sixteenth century, to Prague. Apparently the art did not spread to the British Isles until the early part of the eighteenth century.

Early Cut Glass in America

Although glass making was the first industry to be established in America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, no glass is known to have been cut in the New World until at least 160 years later. Henry William Stiegel, an immigrant from Cologne, Germany, founded the American Flint Glass Manufactory in Manheim, Pennsylvania, and it was there in about 1771 that the first cut glass was produced in America.

For the next sixty years the “Early Period” of American cut glass, our wares were virtually indistinguishable from English, Irish and continental patterns, and little wonder, for most of the cutters originally came to this new country from Europe. About 1830 which historians label the beginning of the “Middle Period” American ingenuity and originality began to influence the industry, and a national style began to develop. This came into full flower about the time our country was preparing to celebrate her hundredth birthday and what is now termed the “Brilliant Period” began. From about 1876 until the advent of World War 1, American cut glass craftsmen excelled all others worldwide, and produced examples of the cut glass art that may never again be equaled.

Forces of Change

Several exciting events dramatically improved American’s cut glass industry, and brought about a superiority that won world acclaim. Near the beginning of the Brilliant Period, deposits of high grade silica were discovered in this country, leading to glass-making formulas vastly better than those used in Europe. Almost simultaneously, natural gas replaced coal-fired furnaces, with resultant better controls of the glass-making process and electricity brought about replacement of clumsy steam-driven cutting wheels.

At the same time, many of Europe’s finest glass makers and cutters were immigrating to this country to seek their fortunes, and they found ready markets for their talents when America moved into a very prosperous era in the closing quarter of the 19th century. Cut glass became a symbol of elegance and leisure, and demand for beautiful glass products spurred intense competition and creativity within the industry.

Brilliant Period Events

[A]t the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, The Libbey Glass Company of Toledo garnered the top awards for cut glass with their Columbia and Isabella patterns. Again popularity increased and huge sets of American cut glass tableware were ordered by the White House, by the presidents of Mexico and Cuba, by Edward VII of Great Britain, and by many industrial tycoons of the day. American cut glass had reached the zenith in its acceptance throughout the world. It had no peers.

Decline of American Glass Industry

Since true cut glass is entirely hand-decorated, high labor costs made it extremely expensive and out of reach to all but the affluent class. Intense competition, both domestic and from abroad, and the introduction of inexpensive pressed glass in patterns imitating cut glass, forced cost cutting short cuts on the dynamic, new American industry. These, about 1897, molding processes and acid polishing techniques began to be used, and inferior products crept into the market. The vogue of setting entire tables with glass was passing, and the industry began its decline. During the Brilliant Period nearly 1,000 glass cutting shops were established, by 1908 less than 100 remained. A number of leading companies continued to maintain their high standards throughout the waning years, and thereby attracted the finest designers and most skilled craftsmen, who from 1908 to 1915 produced some of the most elegant patterns of cut glass ever created. One author has aptly referred to this as the “Era of Super Glass.”

The outbreak of World War I dealt the final blow to the fascinatingly brief birth, growth and decline of a uniquely American achievement. Brilliant cut glass. Lead oxide – an essential ingredient in glass made for cutting was needed for more urgent uses, and by the time the war ended, the few factories that had managed to survive used their resources to produce less costly glass. Thus ended an era of Yankee ingenuity, never to return.

Understanding Cut Glass

Cut leaded crystal (or cut glass) has three distinguishing characteristics: a bell-like ring when gently tapped with the finger, a clarity and brilliance unmatched by pressed or molded imitations, and weight noticeably greater than the same sized piece made of unleaded glass. America’s Brilliant cut glass is appropriately named, for that is literally what it is. The cutting is brilliant because it is sharp and deep, reflecting light from highly polished surfaces. It is deep because it was made from leaded crystal that was beautiful in its clarity even though thick enough to be cut in high relief. Imaginative designers improved upon traditional motifs, arranging them in varying ways to provide for optimum reflective surfaces. American Brilliant Period cut glass was the end product of talented, resourceful craftsmen who capitalized on new glass technology, using new cutting methods made possible with electric powered cutting tools – all at a time when beautiful handmade articles were more appreciated than their machine made counterparts.

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