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A SIMPLE GUIDE TO COLLECTING GLASS

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The first time I really began to take notice of decorative objects made of glass was when I visited a small craft market where one of the stallholders was a professional engraver.  It was obvious to me that she not only enjoyed her craft but really loved her chosen material - the way it looked, felt, its uniqueness and the fact that it displayed so beautifully, with or without added artwork.  From then on, I began to view glass design in a different way and it has fascinated me ever since.

Because of its versatility and the fact that it can be shaped and moulded into a wide variety of different products and designs, there is a huge array of items from which the potential collector can choose - it really is just a matter of personal taste.  If you are into, for instance, Victorian glass, there are items made from the following types of glass: satin, frosted, opaque, cranberry, ruby, bristol blue, uranium (or vaseline), opaline, opalescent, lustre, cloud, and so on.  Then there are the different methods of design and manufacture of glass, such as cut, flashed, cased, etched, cameo, pressed, moulded, blown, etc.  It is important to recognize the difference between these types of glass as they are many and varied and it can be easy to be misled unless you know your subject well.  For instance, you will sometimes see opalescent or opaline glass described as "vaseline" but this is not strictly true, even if these types of glass remind us of the creamy quality of Vaseline ointment.  Literally, vaseline glass has a very small amount of Uranium Dioxide added during manufacture, giving the glass a yellowy-green appearance and always turns fluorescent green when under a UV or "black" light.  Sometimes glass can be manufactured with one or more of these properties - for instance, some ruby, cranberry, pressed and opaline glass, etc., may also have vaseline qualities, so this can be quite confusing to the untrained eye and can even be a challenge to the expert, unless they are able to test the glass under blacklight before making a purchase. Only slightly more confusing than this is the huge list of manufacturers and designers that produced the massive range of glass products available.

Perhaps you have heard of the 'pontil mark', which is sometimes found on the base of glass items.  Pontil marks go back as early as ancient Roman times and indicate that a piece of glass was mouth-blown - it is simply the area where the glass blower broke off the finished product from the pontil rod, which enabled the maker to hold the piece of glass while it was being blown.  It had to be long enough to prevent the glass blower from getting burned by heat transferrence from the hot glass - this rod was later snapped off, leaving a round scar.  Generally speaking, a pontil mark or scar on the base of a piece of glass will indicate that it was probably made before the mid to late nineteenth century, although this is not always the case.  With the advent of more sophisticated methods to hold glass during its manufacture, pontil marks began to disappear by about 1850 - 1870.  However, studio made items that carry a pontil mark continue to be made down to this present time.

So, how do you date a pontil mark?  Usually, the older the piece of glass, the rougher the pontil mark, especially on utility items, although there was a method known as "fire-polishing" which was used on some early 19th century items to smooth out any pontil or tool marks, so a discerning eye is needed for these items.  Also, some modern, foreign, mass produced items show a pontil mark which is either rough, partially polished or ground down - again, the experienced eye will readily differentiate between these items, as well as purposely faked pontil marks, and those found on genuine antique pieces.  Pontil marks came in different shapes and sizes, so this is an entirely separate field of expertise which is best checked out in specialist reference works.   

So, with so much to choose from, it's simply a case of deciding what suits your personal taste, your pocket and your reason for collecting a particular type of glass.  It's true to say that, with the current trend towards minimalism, home decorators have influenced the upturn in demand for the sleek lines of the brightly coloured retro glass decorative items of the 1950's, '60's and '70's.  Young, career-minded people would rather invest in one or two of these highly saught-after designer pieces to feature in their elegant, uncluttered homes than to fill them with inexpensive knick-knacks and this trend has proven to appeal to other sections of society, too.  Modern trends have therefore led to a huge following for designer glass items from those three decades, making them highly desirable and difficult to find.

One of the most popular glass manufacturers of recent times - if not the most popular - is Whitefriars.  Most people have heard of the famous "Drunken Bricklayer" vase, by the designer Geoffrey Baxter, and many of his quirky pieces from the late 1960's and early 1970's command very high prices, often several hundreds of pounds, if not more.  They were often very heavy pieces of glass in a bright colour, such as kingfisher blue, orange, red, green and cinnamon, with a textured finish.  Of course, these items aren't to everyone's taste but they are very popular and cheerful and make a good centrepiece in a plainly decorated room.  Certainly, they are well worth collecting at this present time - if you a fortunate enough to find a piece in good order.  Watch out for "lookalikes", though - although decorative, they were usually manufactured by an English firm called Jones & Co. of  Birmingham and manufactured in Sweden.  The glass was usually thinner and lighter and manufactured in shapes that Whitefriars did not produce. 

Murano is another name to watch out for - this is the very popular Venetian glass that continues to be manufactured in many unique shapes and sizes.  Wonderful, huge glass sculptures can be seen in classy shops as you wander around the streets of Venice.  Look out for signed pieces and especially those that retain their paper label, as this makes a difference to the value of the item, along with condition, of course.  Scandinavian glass from the '50's and '60's, such as Holmgaard, is also highly collectable nowadays - again, signed pieces will command a high price and Per Lutken was one of their main designers.  Kosta Boda, Orrefors and Flygsfors are some of the Swedish manufacturers to watch out for but their are many others and it may be a good idea to invest in a specialist glass reference book to help you to recognise the various designs in glass, so that you can make an informed decision as to what you personally would like to collect.  You may still make the odd mistake from time to time but this is all part of the learning process and can be great fun.

Before you decide to part with your money, make sure you have studied the condition of the piece, as chips, cracks or wear and tear will affect the value.  However, if you want to start a collection on a shoestring and simply want some pieces to display, you might be able to pick up some very attractive pieces with some slight damage for a song.  Sometimes that is the best way to learn your subject and then you can save up for some really nice pieces in time.

Glass is cheerful, decorative and often stunning when it catches the light, so whether or not you are concerned with its value, it will always make a wonderful display - so go ahead and enjoy collecting this lovely, attractive, tactile material.

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