Glass Jewelry: replacement for the ‘real stuff’ or a value in itself?

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Time changes everything, including our perceptions of what is valuable. Modern jewelry made of glass is considered ‘costume’ jewelry, or a replacement of the ‘real thing’ – made of precious stones. But that was not always the case. When Egyptians buried their adored king Tutankhamun in 1323 BC, they buried him with two famous necklaces: “necklace of the sun”, created from glass beads mixed with those made from gold and carnelian, and the ‘vulture collar’, made of solid gold inlaid with pieces of multicolored glass.

History of glass jewelry is the history of glass making itself, since the early glass was used almost exclusively as body ornament. Although scientists cannot agree if the oldest glass beads were made in Egypt or Mesopotamia, the oldest beads discovered by archeologists were found in Egypt and date to 12,000BC. They were simple and fairly crude beads made of clay with glass glaze.

Ancient Egyptians valued glass and glass jewelry enough to decorate their pharaohs with it. There is no doubt that pharaohs could afford ‘the real thing’, but there is a dispute if Egyptians used glass jewelry because they valued it so highly, or because they wanted to cheat grave robbers. Considering how difficult glass making was at that time and how rare was the knowledge of glass making, it is not difficult to believe that the glass jewelry was considered to be in the same league as that made from precious stones.

Another reason to believe the value ancient Egyptians afforded to glass jewelry is the quality of the workmanship and artistry invested in making pieces that survived to this day. The necklaces in Tutankhamen’s tomb were made of solid gold and glass was placed instead of precious stones not because of their lack, but because of intrinsic value they afforded to glass in its own right.
Since both Egyptians and Phoenicians used glass beads for trade, they were soon found all over the world, and with them the knowledge of their manufacture. Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Bohemian, Chinese and Indian glass makers started producing high quality glass beads and other objects. But, it was not until 14th century that murano glass bead-making reached its zenith in Murano, Italy. Murano glass artisans perfected the lampworking technique – glass rod heated with an oil lamp with a glass chimney. Molten glass was formed by blowing or shaping it with different tools and hand movements. Murano glass makers came up with a number of different bead making techniques that are today used all over the world. One of the most famous – millefiori, or thousand flowers – is today almost the synonym with murano glass bead making.

It is interesting that glass beads play important role in many cultures all over the world – from Africa to Borneo in Malaysia, but the glass beads for the tribal jewelry always had to be imported. Many Dayak ladies in Borneo are decorated with bead necklaces that have been in their family for generations, but the ladies would be very surprised to find out that the beads for them came very probably from Murano. And they are not the only ones: artisans all over the world importing famous murano glass beads and create unique glass jewelry according to their own artistic preferences and ideals. The world is becoming a very small place indeed.

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