What's in a paperweight

The magic of the futile

The glass ball encloses your little world, forever inaccessible. Artful flowers, fruits, butterflies are hidden in it. So close, and yet wonderfully remote. Who asks about the meaning and purpose? Yet paperweights also had a function in the past. They prevented leaves from whirling around in a gust of wind. Rolled documents were held apart with them so that they could be read.

A piece of everyday culture that today only finds a few fans. Your focus is on glass balls, which are collected all over the world as "paperweights". The name is literally incorrect ("paper weight"), but has established itself internationally. Paperweights were originally a marginal phenomenon in glass production. After the production of colored glass through the use of chemicals was no longer a problem for the smelters in Europe around 1840, glassblowers used scrap pieces for highly personal experiments. The cross-sections of drawn glass rods and chopsticks, which are reminiscent of flowers, aroused her creativity. They arranged them side by side to form carpets of flowers, and finally melted the structure into a glass ball. "Millefiori" - a thousand blossoms - was also the name of the first paperweight motif that was presented to the public. The glassblower Pietro Bigaglia from Murano caused a sensation at the Vienna Industrial Exhibition in 1845.

In the same year, the French crystal manufacturer Saint-Louis started producing colored, glass paperweights, followed by competition in Baccarat and Clichy. But the fascinating products never became a bestseller. It was time-consuming to manufacture and the customer base, who had a lot of sense and money for the little gems, was too small. "Presse-papiers" were only produced in the renowned French glassworks for about ten years - according to expert estimates, a total of only about 25,000 copies.

Paperweights were also made in German smelters, but not as commodities. Glassblowers in Bohemia, Thuringia, Bavaria and the Black Forest created them with the approval of their employers in their free time to give them away or to pay for beer with them in the pub. Today collectors refer to these pieces as "break glass", "after work" and "beer money". They modeled dedications and dates with copper wire, they included medals, photos, porcelain plates and plaster figurines.

With the great wave of emigration at the end of the 19th century, many European glassblowers brought their know-how to the United States, and it was American collectors who encouraged the French crystal smelters to resume paperweight production after the Second World War. At the same time, the advent of small glass melting furnaces revolutionized manufacturing. Glass artists no longer had to work in the industrial huts, but could set up their own studios. "Today the center of glass art is undisputedly in the USA", says Monika Flemming, who wrote a standard work with Peter Pommerencke on the history of paperweights ("Paperweights", Battenberg). Your company Farfalla is the first address for collectors in Germany. The trade includes antique, modern and contemporary paperweights.

The Saint-Louis crystal factory is the only one of the traditional French companies that still issues annual collections with five to six motifs (circulation: 75 to 125 each). Prices: between 750 and 2000 euros. Baccarat discontinued this branch last year. "There are hardly any glassblowers who have mastered the fine art," explains Monika Flemming.

The retailer advises newcomers to focus on quality and not quantity. "Just don't start with antique pieces", because beginners would find it difficult to assess their quality and value for money. "A single bent petal can reduce the value." It is better to start with contemporary work from specialist retailers.

Collections can be found in the Musée du Verre in Liège and in the Buchheim Museum in Bernried / Starnberger See. The best collections, however, are at home in the USA, such as the Arthur Rubloff Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Info: Flemming and Partner,

Tel. 08151/78080; www.farfalla.de