In 1851 The Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations was held at the Crystal Palace (Hyde Park) in London. It was a landmark event with 13,000 exhibitors and six million visitors intended to stir industrial co-operation between nations and to showcase the finest material achievements of each country.
Amid the agricultural machinery, cotton- loom demonstrations, furniture, textiles and musical instruments were some tiny French glass paperweights. For such minute gem like ornamental pebbles (as small as 6cm in diameter), they were to make a mighty impact on the arts and crafts scene.
Starting with the greats: The French glass houses of Clichy (Clichy-la-Garenne, Paris), Baccarat (Lorraine), and St Louis (Saint-Louis-Les-Bitche) created many of the most valuable of today’s collectable weights during the relatively short period from 1845-1860. Other houses in Venice, England, the US and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) would all make fabulous glass art during the 19th century — but the French remained astonishing innovators.
Brilliantly coloured, undulating, twisted and spliced “candy-canes”, referred to as millefiori, were magnified under a dome of clear glass. The dome encapsulates tightly packed blossoms, ribbons, ‘stardust’ grounds and exquisite inclusions —gathered into brilliant and eternal tiny gardens — rich, complex reflections suspended in a drop of rain.
The rods of glass were formed by pulling the layered, twisted rods of different colours and textured glass into finer and finer strings (not unlike the making of candied ‘rock’) and then slicing it across the pattern to show off the ‘million flowers’ effect in honeycomb, arrow, trefoil, star and other styles of finish.
The makers were so skilled, they could leave initials and a date inside a single bundle of canes or leave a picture so small at the rod ends, your eye has to be against the weight to even see it. Gridal (transparent) canes added to the magical depth and sparkle of the piece.
Small insects and even lizards were sometimes set inside the little horticultural fantasy — bouquets could be tied with shining miniature bows and set into white “muslin”. Radishes and apples appear so crisp you could bite into their flesh.
The other technique used in paperweights then and now is lamp-work — it’s the heating and manipulation used to make glass animals — hot, meticulous, complex crafting.
The fussiness of twee, High Victorian taste contained in a dense bubble — the weights were irresistible jewels to the eyes of high society and were soon decorating every fashionable desk across the British Isles. Soon the Americans were producing their own examples.
Oscar Wilde was entranced, and writer Truman Capote was an unlikely 20th-century collector.
The glassy insect and reptile dioramas by Pantin of Paris, with their odd, hyper-realistic inclusions have a cabinet curiosity feel — stirring thoughts of species afloat in formaldehyde.
Identifying the maker of a weight can be problematic and it’s a puzzle common to many forms of antique glass. An experienced dealer will have an instant rapport, and can generally come up with a likely source. Clichy used a rose for many but not all of its weights (contained in the design) and Saint Louis used a tiny devil to mark its weights where possible.
A magnum weight will be slightly larger than standard, around 8cm across. Macedoine paperweights have an attractive random look with a busy, ‘scramble’ of colour and rods. Latticinio was a fabric swirl often set with flowers or fruit.
In Victorian weights, “dump” or “end-of-day” paperweights were fashioned by glass blowers in commonplace glass factories using lumps of glass left over at the end of their shift.
Often relegated to doorstops, dumps go unrecognised in secondhand shops and general auctions even today, as they really don’t look their age at all. They are large (15cm in height would not be unusual), generally a slightly bluish-green, a bulbous upright shape and can include lacy flowers conjured in airy bubbles from the breath of the 19th-century maker.
Expect to pay in the area of €100 for an undamaged piece with light rubs to the base.
The dome of a weight can be lofty (crowned) or very flat depending on the design, and as the highest point it’s the first place to take an accidental knock. A glass weight should be perfectly balanced (asymmetrical) without any foggy colour cast, striations, folds, nicks or other faults.
Knowing where the weight was made adds to its collectability, so even if you buy a new, quality weight, preserve any paper stickers, boxes or certificates as part of its provenance. Some weights may be signed or identified by a name or mark in the inclusions, Perthshire for example has a single “P”.
Decorative paperweights are meant to be viewed from a variety of aspects, and beg to be held and turned, but this is where they can pick up ‘bruising’, ‘fleabites’ (tiny nicks) and other scuffs. Handle them will extreme care and swat away children from ideas of a sticky
fingered game of mega-marbles across the tile flooring.
Even a nick to the generally concave base of a weight or honest rub marks from being on a table will count as a flaw, so don’t drag them across even polished timber.
Lift the weight straight up in two hands and don’t place two weight close enough to wallop against each other if the cabinet is bounced.
As an outlier from the typical French antique weight, and a very expensive one nonetheless — take a look at the work in opaque pates-de-verre by French artist Victor Amalric Walter (1870–1959) for Daum Nancy. Wildly faked and shattering the genuine market — so be wary, mes chers.