The History of Blown Glass

Glass is an alluring medium: it is translucent, glittering, delicate, and seemingly weightless.

Dale Chihuly’s statement piece in the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum in Seattle, WA

Humans started using glass a long time ago, in the form of obsidian. This is not the clear, human-made glass we know today, but rather a natural volcanic substance. This was used for spearheads, weapons, and other tools. It held duality as a mirror because it was incredibly reflective, and it had depth without being awkwardly thick. In 4000 BCE, people found that using sand, plant ash, and lime, one could produce a transparent version. Sand is universally used for glass, as the silica molecules create a transparent material. The ash allows sand to be heated to a high temperature, and the lime reduces moisture that can damage the product by causing unwanted ripples or bubbles.

A natural obsidian rock.

People in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia made glass vessels by manually shaping them around a core. The cores were removed after leaving it to cool, making the glass shape hollow. The Romans also used this method to make perfume bottles.

In 300 BCE, glass blowing came about. It was more efficient and controllable than pouring glass over a mold and allowed a wider range of creativity, including metal inlays and decoration. A thousand years later, in Venice, glassblowers honed their craft on Murano Island until they could make pristinely clear glass. During this turning point, brighter and longer-lasting pigments were developed to make the practical glass into something beautiful. During the Renaissance, glass blowing and working with glass became more widespread throughout Europe, not just in Italy. Glass was also used for liquor bottles and window panes. 

Rick Satava’s glass blown jellyfish.

Today, glass is a common, practical medium. It is seen in windows and dinnerware and tchotchkes such as Christmas ornaments or stained glass decorations. Not many people can produce blown-glass pieces without proper training; you need a scorching fire, specific supplies, and an agile hand. Contemporarily, glass blowing is regarded as niche craftsmanship, some far-fetched, fairytale practice seen from a gallery case. But it lives on in those who learn this magical art of molding ordinary sand into something treasured.

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