I often wonder what causes people to collect glass paperweights. Prices seem to spiral upward, so for many these weights may be investments. Unusual examples enter the market with surprising regularity, and they are often greeted with record-breaking enthusiasm. Many collectors cherish them for their beauty and fantasy. Are there other reasons to explain the mania? I can only answer from a personal point of view.
There are, of course, all of the obvious reasons. Paperweights are beautiful, but they are understated in ways that most Victorian-era glass is not, and they represent extraordinary’ craftsmanship. However, I admire paperweights primarily because they are the culmination of some 2,000 years of glassmaking artistry and experimentation.
When one looks at paperweights in terms of the history of glassmaking, one realizes that
there is little that makes them unique. The workmanship in a millefiori paperweight, for example, is no better than that perfected for the production of inlay plaques in ancient Alexandria in the first century B.C. During the Renaissance, Italian glassmakers also created millefiori canes that are nearly as complex as those made in midnineteenth century France, and they even encased them in decorative solid globes. The lampworked flowers found in paperweights are no more elaborate or delicate than the minute human figures created in Nevers, France, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There is, then, nothing new about paperweights.
Nevertheless, they are unique and important. The dome of colorless crystal provides the magic. One cannot easily see how the glassmaker formed and enclosed the tiny figures in the glass, or even even comprehend how small they really are because the solid dome magnifies everything within and forms a barrier to our touch. Cut facets, which appear to increase the number and reduce the size of the decorations, also add to the mystery. Visitors to our Museum stand in front of our paperweight display and ask, “How were they made?”
To understand just how important the “mystery” of the solid dome is, consider snowstorm paperweights. The magic of these weights may fascinate young minds, but it quickly pales for an adult who can easily figure out how it is done: the figure and the liquid are obviously added through an opening in the bottom.
I shall always remember (embarrassedly)that when I joined the staff of The Corning Museum of Glass, I considered paperweights boring. That opinion changed dramatically when I saw the wonderful examples in our collection. There is nothing like seeing, handling, and studying the best to learn about quality paperweights. Lawrence Selman’s newest book is useful to have by your side as you begin.
I have been working with the Museum’s weights for more than fifteen years, and I am pleased to report that I haven’t had a boring moment with them in all that time. I attribute their holding power to the fertile imaginations of their makers—makers who have mastered a demanding technology and demonstrated an elegant sense of design. Fortunately, we live in a time when these virtues are no less abundant . . . although it sometimes takes considerable effort to find the evidence. One need look no further than the pages of this book.
Dwight P. Lanmon Director