Some of the earliest paperweights were made in Venice in the 1840s. They were gathered together out of scraps of latticino and other types of cane, as well as chunks of aventurine quartz, which would be picked up by a ball of hot glass at the end of a pipe, covered with more clear glass, and then fashioned into a smooth cylinder. The glass was of poor quality and the collection of scrambled scraps within was a random jumble, at best.
Around the same time in Bohemia, the present-day Czech Republic, glassworkers were taking Venetian caning techniques to more inspired heights. Whereas the Venetian paperweights had used canes to create a sort of three-dimensional collage, the Bohemians used it to produce millefiori effects, in which the ends of canes were organized with their cross sections facing out so that viewers could discern patterns in the paperweight.
The Bohemians improved upon the techniques of the Venetians, and also incorporated the artistry of the French, who really brought the art of the paperweight into full flower. In fact, flowers were part of the reason why mid-19th-century French paperweights are so prized by collectors today: the flowers that seem suspended within these paperweights are like nothing else produced at the time.
Baccarat is unquestionably the most famous and renowned paperweight producer. They used two principle types of cane: millefiori, whose cross-sections revealed stars, spirals, and shamrocks, and silhouettes, which ranged from dogs to doves to devils. Baccarat codified the basic types of paperweights that glassworkers still aspire to today. The "plain" millefiori paperweights were produced in widely spaced or tight-and-close styles. Sometimes the canes were organized in concentric circles, other times their ends were interwoven like garlands.
Two other collectible Baccarat styles are mushrooms, in which a bundle of canes seem to spout like a mushroom from within the weight, and carpets, whose wall-to-wall patterns would do a Persian rug maker proud.
Three-dimensional lampworked flowers encased in glass were the chief French innovation. At Baccarat, flower choices included pansies, primroses, wheatflowers, clematis, buttercups, and, of course, roses. Fruits such as strawberries and pears were also frozen in glass, as were lizards, snakes, and other reptiles.
One of Baccarat’s toughest competitors was St. Louis, whose artisans could do pretty much everything Baccarat’s could. Plus, they had a Venetian-inspired innovation of their own:...
There were numerous other paperweight makers in 19th-century France, including the highly regarded Clichy, whose trademark cane rose appears in some 30 percent of all the paperweights produced by the company. The cross section of another popular Clichy cane resembles a pastry mold. Like its French counterparts, Clichy often inserted a cane into its paperweights whose cross section was the first letter of its name (for Clichy that would be "C," Baccarat used one with a "B," while St. Louis had a cane that spelled out two letters, "SL").
The French also excelled at sulphide or cameo paperweights. Baccarat produced odes to Joan of Arc and scenics such as a hunter accompanied by his trusty dog. St. Louis encased Napoleon III, while Clichy made sulphides bearing the likenesses of Benjamin Franklin and Marie Antoinette.
English glassmakers were not sitting still while all this innovation was taking place on the other side of the channel. A Birmingham company called Bacchus made paperweights using canes that resembled stars, ruffles, and cogs. Its concentric paperweights are especially well regarded, as are the pieces whose interiors appears to be blanketed with drifts of snow. The English made sulphides, too, often, not surprisingly, of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
In the United States, some of the new world’s first paperweights were made at the New England Glass Company in Cambridge, the forerunner of a company today known as Libbey. Its specialties were flower and fruit weights. Some of these fruit paperweights were blown to scale in the shape of apples or pears, then fused to a round or square clear base. Crosstown Boston rival Sandwich Glass Company differentiated its products by putting the flowers inside its paperweights in delicate, encased baskets.
Former New England Glass employee William Gillinder started his own firm in Philadelphia. His paperweights featured sulphide portraits of America’s founding fathers—one series of buildings in Philadelphia was created for the nation’s centennial in 1876. Millville, New Jersey was another center for paperweight making. The so-called "motto" weights ("Home Sweet Home," "Remember the Maine," "Hope") were popularized here, as were the flower and clipper paperweights, which featured a single blooming rose or delicate miniature ship entombed in crystal.
Other early American paperweights that are highly prized by contemporary collectors include those made at the Mt. Washington Glass Works, Pairpoint (which took over Mt. Washington in 1894), and the Union Glass Company of Somerville, Massachusetts.
In the early part of the 20th-century, Tiffany used the paperweight to anchor some of his vases, as well as to create more traditional paperweights that offered viewers glimpses of underwater scenes. Steuben relegated paperweight-making to a unpaid pursuit best left to enterprising workers during their lunch hour.
The 1920s saw a boom in paperweight technologies in the Czech Republic, where faceted, flower-filled paperweights were the rage. Baccarat revived its millefiori output shortly after World War II, and in 1953 created a sulphide paperweight to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. St. Louis also built upon its 19th-century paperweight traditions in the 1950s, particularly with its upright bouquets, which it produced throughout the 1960s.
In recent years, one of the most vibrant regions for vintage paperweights has been Scotland. According to collector Richard More, the Ysart family and the companies they spawned came to prominence shortly after World War II. Ysart’s patterned millefiori paperweights are at once traditional and fresh, with rich coloration and lush interiors. Whether it’s an Ysart Brothers piece from 1946 to 1955, a Vasart from 1956 to 1964, or a Strathearn from 1965 to 1980, these paperweights remind us why the form has captivated art-glass lovers for more than 150 years
Key terms for Antique and Vintage Art Glass Paperweights:
Cane: A glass rod made by stretching molten glass from both ends.
Lampworking: The practice of using an open flame, usually from a gas torch, to melt and form pieces of glass into a desired shape.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
Morton D. Barker Paperweight Collection
Richard Mores Paperweight Photo Albums
Early Office Museum
Cloud Glass Reference Site
Antique Glass Salt and Sugar Shaker Club
Clubs & Associations
- Antique Glass Salt and Sugar Shaker Club
- The Glass Art Society
- Stained Glass Association of America
- The Glass Association