Nineteenth century revival of the glass industry
In early nineteenth-century Europe, a new creative potential developed in the decorative arts. An increasingly urban population and an expanding market of goods created by the Industrial Revolution stimulated the manufacture of many new decorative novelties. In the mid-1840s, glass paperweights appeared. They were a wholly modern, functional glass form that drew upon the ancient glassmaking techniques of millefiori and lampwork and the late-eighteenth century technique of cameo incrustation
The sudden emergence and popularity of paperweights can be attributed not only to their decorative appeal but also to a growing Victorian leisure-time interest in letter writing. This fashionable upper and middle class pastime assured their profitable manufacture along with many other glass accessories related to letter writing, all of which were purchased inexpensively at stationery and novelty shops.
Appearance of French paperweights
The exact year and origin of the manufacture of the first glass paperweight is problematical, but the first documented appearance can be traced to the Exhibition of Austrian Industry held in Vienna in 1845. The paperweights of Pietro Bigaglia of Venice were displayed at this exhibition. Knowledge of their existence was reportedly soon brought to the attention of the Saint-Louis glass factory in France, which immediately began to manufacture its own weights. A paperweight from Saint Louis dated 1845 is known, as well as one from Murano, Italy.
A second major French glasshouse, the Clichy factory, is also thought to have been manufacturing weights as early as 1845. A close concentric millefiori pedestal weight in the Barker collection is the earliest-dated known weight produced by the Clichy factory. The glided mount on this weight bears the inscription ";ESCALIER DE CRISTAL 1845." It is highly speculative, however, that the engraved date actually refers to the year of the weight's manufacture. The Escalier de Cristal was a novelty shop in Paris; consequently, the mount could have been added at any time.
The entry of a third leading French glasshouse, the Baccarat factory, into paperweightmaking is marked by existing weights enclosing the date 1846. Factories in Bohemia and England followed suit with the earliest-dated known weights from each locale inscribed "1848." In the decade or so following 1845, the three great French glasshouses of Saint Louis, Clichy, and Baccarat competed with one another in the manufacture of the most beautiful and the best executed weights. The results were a myriad of artistically conceived millefiori designs and lampworked motifs, near technical perfection of the glassmaker's skill, and great quantities of weights produced.
The Classic Period
This period of competitive manufacture, which captures paperweightmaking at its best, had come to be termed the Classic Period of French paperweights. It ranged in date from circa 1845 to 1855, although the time span is arbitrary and may extend slightly earlier or later (possibly through 1860) than the given decade. Perhaps the most highly praised paperweights of the French Classic Period are those produced by the Clichy factory. Clichy was the only French glasshouse whose weights were displayed at the Great Exposition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and again, at the New York Crystal Palace in 1853. These public celebrations of the union of science and art in technology brought paperweights to the attention of the world. They were viewed by thousands of visitors, including a large American audience, and served to usher in the American Classic Period of paperweightmaking, which extended from 1852 through the 1870s, long after the popularity of paperweights had declined in Europe.
Paperweights continued to be produced in the twentieth century. Baccarat and Saint Louis continue to produce elegant weights reminiscent of the Classic Period, as well as modern designs. American glass companies and glass artists also continue creating paperweights in the traditional styles and create new traditions of their own.