The earliest paperweights appeared in Europe in the mid-1840s. Venetian glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia created and exhibited the first signed and dated weights at the Vienna Industrial Exposition in 1845. He, like other paperweight makers of the time, revived many ancient glassworking techniques to create his weights.
In 1851, Prince Albert of England sponsored the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, housed at the %%Crystal%% Palace in London, to showcase international artistic innovations, some of which were paperweights. The Vienna Industrial Exposition, The Great Exhibition and subsequent world fairs played a significant role in introducing paperweights to the world.
Following the Great Exhibition, paperweights were produced in many countries, but French designs were the most widely varied and finely executed.
19th Century French Paperweights
Prominent French glasshouses were especially interested in making weights to help revive the depressed French glass industry. They included:1
- Compagnie des Cristalleries de Saint Louis
- Compagnie des Verreries et Cristalleries de Baccarat
- Cristallerie de Clichy
- Cristallerie de Pantin
Paperweights were viewed as luxury items that satisfied the 19th-century taste for ornamentation, but were inexpensive to make. Letter writing was a popular activity at the time, and paperweights became a fashionable and economical way to decorate a home while keeping papers organized in drafty rooms.
During the classic period of %%paperweight%% making (1845–1860), Baccarat, Clichy, Saint Louis and Pantin significantly raised the standards for %%paperweight%% makers around the world. They explored every possibility of the millefiori technique and introduced and perfected new motifs such as flameworked flora and fauna.
Glasshouses in Bohemia, Silesia, Italy, Belgium and England also took an interest in paperweights at this time. Glassmakers emigrating to America brought their knowledge of %%paperweight%% making to the United States, encouraging the emerging glass industry to follow Europe’s example.
Throughout the 19th century, most paperweights were appreciated for their decorative aspects, and some of the most technically advanced weights were seen as collectible objets d’art. Yet paperweights were the least valued objects made by the glasshouses, and they were not considered as artistically important as they are today.
Paperweights in the 20th Century
In the early 20th century, artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany created work that brought new attention to paperweight techniques. Tiffany’s %%paperweight%% vases were made using methods similar to those used to create traditional %%paperweights%%, but they were a departure from the traditional %%paperweight%% form. Although Tiffany’s %%paperweight%% vases were utilitarian, their artistic expression was considered equally important.
Throughout the 20th century, many artists have challenged themselves to break away from traditional %%paperweight%% design, and to use the techniques in new ways. The Studio Glass movement, beginning in the United States in 1962, was a key development. Artistic glassmaking moved from the factories to the studio, and artists, including %%paperweight%% and marble makers, began working with glass for artistic, rather than functional, ends.
For many years glass paperweights were viewed solely as functional decorative objects that held paper down. They also went through phases as novelty items and production giftware, which is common even now. However, within the last few decades traditional ideas of what a paperweight is have been cast aside. Many artists now make endless varieties of paperweight-related objects, such as orbs, marbles, vessels, and small-scale sculptures. They have drawn their inspiration from early paperweight makers, and they have studied their techniques and expanded on them. Several of these artists are bringing a unique perspective to paperweight-making, and the exhibition showcases their exciting contributions to the field.
Contemporary artists like Paul Stankard and Josh Simpson have taken the microcosmic ideology of the paperweight to new levels, creating highly-complex ecosystems and miniature worlds within paperweights using flameworking and furnace-working techniques.
A flameworker, Paul Stankard focuses on miniaturizing and magnifying aspects of nature that inspire him. He has mastered the techniques of mid-19th-century floral paperweights, and he uses his knowledge of botany to create faithful reproductions from the world of plants. Stankard has stated that one of the things he tries to accomplish with his work is "the continuation of a tradition with pride in craftsmanship." However, at the same time he hopes to "bring a new contemporary experience to the centuries' old lampworking tradition."2
Josh Simpson’s intricate Megaplanets inspired the Museum to commission him to create its thousandth paperweight, a 100-pound universe. Simpson’s work at the furnace involves the creation of detailed and multi-layered land-, sea- and spacescapes that encourage the viewer to appreciate even the smallest details that make up our complex universe.
As paperweights continue to evolve, some paperweight makers are choosing to hold fast to tradition and work hard to master classical design and technique. Others are taking new risks in what has become a large and varied field of artistic endeavor.
1Throughout their history, glassmaking firms, such as Baccarat, Clichy, St. Louis, and Pantin periodically changed their names. These were their formal names during the mid-19th century.
2Paul Jokelson & Gerard Ingold, Paperweights of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Phoenix, Arizona: Papier Presse, 1989, pp. 119-121.