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THERE is perhaps hardly enough of interest to be written about Bohemian glassware to warrant writing on this subject, and yet it is so different from American and English glass in many respects that there seems to be no other logical method. Besides, the beauty of this glassware, not too well known among collectors, should win for it a place beside old Wedgwood. It was used and highly prized in the households of our forefathers.
We are treating now of a class of colored glassware that has come to be known-not always correctly-as Bohemian. While most of our glassware came from England, much of that most highly prized and most carefully preserved by our great-grandfathers came from Germany-chiefly Bohemia, Saxony, Bavaria, and Silesia. Because it was so carefully preserved, not a little of it is still in existence, and it offers a fascinating field for the collector. Bohemian glassware was made chiefly in the forms of drinking-mugs, decanters, bottles, goblets, and wine-sets. Pitchers, dishes, and other pieces are occasionally found. The forms are so varied and beautiful that no collection, however large, can ever become monotonous.
The colors also offer wide variety. Red, green, pink, blue, white, amber, and other colors were used. As a rule, however, the quality of the color is unmistakable and of great beauty. Hold a piece of real Bohemian against the light, and its clear, gem-like effect becomes at once apparent.
The decoration is, in the main, intaglio; the surface of the glass was stained, and the design cut into the clear crystal. There are some exceptions which will be mentioned later.
The art of making glassware stained on the surface probably originated in Venice, the seat of the greatest skill and originality in glass-craft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This art was probably copied by the Germans about the beginning of the seventeenth century. During this century the manufacture of Bohemian glassware became an im portant industry and made a serious impression on the European glass market. Venice had controlled the glass trade for more than three hundred years, and France had been content to sit at her feet and learn of her. Now Bohemia entered the industrial lists with a clearer glass than that which either of her competitors was able to produce. Furthermore, a Bohemian named Gasper Lehmann discovered a hitherto unknown method for engraving upon glass, and this opened a new field for decorative art. Lehmann transmitted his knowledge to a pupil named George Schwanhard, and he continued to improve upon his master's devices, until all Europe went mad over engraved glass.
The engraving was done by holding the glass against the point of a whirling spindle, and designs of great intricacy were in this way executed by skilled workmen. Designs were also made by cutting on wheels, depending on the sharp outline of the stained surface to produce the decoration in relief. Four vertical wheels were successively used, set in motion by the workman's feet. The first of these wheels was of iron, the next of sandstone, the next of wood, and the last of cork. The first operation of rough cutting was done on the iron wheel, by using sand moistened with water. The sandstone wheel was lightly applied, and that was followed by the wooden one, on which had been thrown fine sand first, then very fine emery, and lastly putty-powder, which is a mixture of tin and oxid of lead. The last wheel of cork finished the operation. If a workman did not have a cork wheel, he could still put on a very good finish by means of his wooden wheel, sprinkled with dry tin-putty, and covered with a piece of woolen stuff.
A cheaper kind of Bohemian glass was sometimes made by etching the design with fluoric acid, by a somewhat complicated but not expensive process. Very skilful and beautiful ornamentation was done in this way, but acid-etched pieces are naturally of less value than hand-cut pieces to-day, as they were a century or two ago. Etched glass can be distinguished after some experience. However carefully the chemical operation may be performed, it is impossible that every part eaten by the acid should have the sharpness and clearness of line which is given by the point of a graving-tool or the edge of the cutting-wheel at the hands of an expert workman.
During the eighteenth century Bohemian glassware became popular and fairly plentiful. Some was used in Germany, but most of it was exported to Austria, Italy, the East, England, and America. In our country it was highly prized, especially by gentlemen of means who were proud of their wine-services and used them much.
Comparisons between the Bohemian product and much of the other glass upon the market are strongly in favor of the former. It was clear, light, and of agreeable delicacy to the touch. No other glass as purely colorless was ever made until the modern discovery of flint glass. The Bohemians used their own shapes, which are distinctly different from all others, if not often more beautiful.
One step in the manufacture differed quite widely from that used in other countries. In order to hasten the work of the furnaces, the rims of goblets and similar objects were trimmed by means of the cutter's wheel, instead of by the glass-maker's shears, as in England, Belgium, and France. The workmen, by long practice, had acquired a wonderful degree of skill in taking the top from articles by the cutter, instead of having them opened by the glass-blower. This gave the edges a neater and smoother appearance.
While cutting and engraving were the more common forms of decoration, the originality of the Bohemian glass-workers did not lack other means of expression. The art of cameo incrustation on glassware was first introduced by the Bohemians, and they made use of it to some extent. A kind of enameled painting is also found on what has been called Fichtel glass, made at kilns in the Fichtel Mountains in Bavaria. Artists sometimes varied their work and produced pleasing effects by engraving through the outer coloring into an interior of white, transparent or enameled glass, which was afterward decorated with gold, and painted in arabesques.
The coloring on the ordinary kind of Bohemian glassware was a stain applied to the surface with a brush and fixed by subjection to heat. To the richness of this color is due the chief beauty of the ware. Some of the glass, however, was colored throughout in the making, by means of various minerals and chemicals.
Collectors of Bohemian glassware should look first for sharpness and depth of cutting, and excellence of design. A beautiful form is naturally more valuable than a clumsy .one, and a delicate pattern in the engraving than a coarse one. All other things being equal, the heavier the glass and the deeper the cutting, the more valuable the piece, while the amount and elaborateness of the engraving and cutting are also determining factors. Always examine the cutting and feel of the edges. They should be sharp, or a high price is unjustifiable.
The sharp edges are not found on the acid-etched pieces nor on the half-cut imitations. These imitations are very successfully made by first blowing the glass in a mold that contains the required design, and then giving it a superficial finish on the wheel. The edges readily proclaim a difference between the real cut glass and the imitation. This, of course, is a common test for all cut glass.
The color is another important feature to consider. Any piece loses value if its color is not clear, uniform, and pleasing. Some of the blues and greens are far less desirable than others, while the connoisseur never ceases his search for the perfect red. A deep winecolor is much desired, but a rich, brilliant ruby-almost an ox-blood color-is the most earnestly sought for and the least easily imitated. The whites and light tints should always be perfectly clear; just now pure pink is much in demand, and high prices are asked and paid for it.
The only reasonable criticism ever made upon the glass is that it sometimes yellows with age, but this has been found by experiment to be true of all perfectly clear glass, under the action of strong sunlight. Applications of artificial heat restore the original purity.
For the most part Bohemian glassware collecting is interesting and satisfactory. The ware is rare enough to furnish incentive, and not so rare as to cause the quest to become discouraging. Above all, it is beautiful to look upon.
It is impossible to give any figures that will adequately place the value on Bohemian glassware as a whole. So much depends on the cutting, the pattern, the color. In general, bottles and decanters may range from $20 to $50 apiece. The best grades are worth slightly more, perhaps. For example, a 14 inch decanter, deeply cut, of the true ruby color, and of good design, would be worth about $100. But "deeply cut" and "good design" are hardly definite terms. No piece of reputable Bohemian ware at least seventy-five years old is worth less than $20, while complete wine-sets, if heavy and beautiful, may be valued at $200 or more. Evidently good judgment and a working knowledge of typical examples of the ware are essential in buying or selling Bohemian glassware.