Sunday, 18 June 2006

Swarovski gems: crystal glass that dazzles collectors worldwide

by Christopher Proudlove©
Daniel Swarovski was a pioneer who invented the first machine to cut crystal glass in 1892 and soon his crystal gems set a fashion trend by enhancing the femail form.

eBay power-seller Berliner Marion von Kuczkowski, 40, has hit on a scheme already dubbed "a gem of a strip show" - to stick a million glittering Swarovski crystals on to the body of curvaceous model Chantal and sell them off at one euro a pop (that's 68p in old money). As the crystals are sold, so Chantal is revealed in all her glory. Part of the sale will also benefit a charity, as yet unnamed. The money raised from the sale of the last handful of crystals, however many there are, will be delivered by Chantal (presumably clothed) to the buyer wherever he or she might be in the world and their purchase price donated to "an international help organisation". You can witness the progress at

However, there are many more ways in which to buy Swarovski creations, most if not all of them more rewarding. They are the ever-present stock in trade of countless high street gift shops and they make perfect presents, particularly for the new, younger generation of collectors. Admittedly, they're not everyone's cup of tea but to give them their due, they are very clever and clearly carefully constructed. More importantly, the story behind them is fascinating.

Young Daniel Swarovski was born in 1862 in Bohemia in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the most important glass manufacturing centres in Europe. His father owned a small glass-making factory which gave the family a good living and so it was a foregone conclusion that Daniel should be an apprentice there.

At that time crystal glass was cut entirely by hand, the skilled engraver working one piece at a time, incising the surfaces by holding them against high-speed rotating cutting wheels. The process was arduous and hugely labour-intensive. A complex piece could take hours to produce and wastage was high, a simple, single mistake rendering an otherwise perfect product completely useless. Examine an old piece of cut-glass closely and it is quite possible to see the slight variations in patterns which are inevitable with hand-cutting.

Daniel learned the business the hard way, mastering the technique of hand-cutting both in his father's factory as well as at several others in the region. But he was of a new generation of industrialists and was eager to introduce change. At the age of 21, he visited the first Elektrische Ausstellung (electrical exhibition) in Vienna, where he saw the innovations being introduced by such inventors as Thomas Edison (1847-1931) and Werner von Siemens (1816-1892). The exhibition was the inspiration for Daniel's idea of inventing a machine for the precision cutting of crystal glass.

It took nine years of painstaking trial and error before the machine was perfected and ready to patent but in 1892, Daniel's creation was poised to revolutionise the production of cut crystal glass. His machine was faster, more precise, error-free and could do the work of several men without the need for a lengthy apprenticeship and training period.

In 1895 Daniel, his brother-in-law Franz Weis and their friend Armand Kosmann founded the Swarovski company which continues today, in Wattens, near Innsbruck in the Austrian Tyrol, Austria, where a newly-built hydroelectricity plant was producing cheap plentiful power for the energy-intensive grinding machines he had invented.

In 1908 and with his sons Wilhelm, Friedrich and Alfred working for him, Daniel's thoughts turned to making his own glass rather than using that imported from the factories around him. Experimenting in a workshop specially built next to the family's villa in Wattens, he spent the next three years designing and building a melting oven, followed by more time experimenting with recipes to produce flawless crystal. The breakthrough came in 1913, allowing mass production to take off.

By 1917 Swarovski had introduced grinding tools which were used to produce jewell-sized crystal stones and in 1919 they were registered under the brand name Tyrolit. Swarovski's brilliant-cut "gems" were the toast of Europe, championed in particular by the Parisian fashion houses and jewellers who incorporated them into their designs. As a result, Swarovski concentrated on Tyrolit production and even went so far as to invent a crystal-set fabric which could be sewn directly or on to clothes and other accessories. The glittering flapper dresses so loved during the Roaring Twenties owe their existence to Swarovski, who patented the invention in 1931.

Today, the range of products is vast from the highest quality scientific instruments and telescopic rifle scopes; sunglasses; jewellery, fashion and home accessories; and for the collector, miniature figurines like the ones illustrated here. Love them or loathe them, they cannot be ignored and they have a huge following around the world. The Swarovski Crystal Society, formed in 1987, unites those who share the passion and has more than 400,000 members in more than 30 countries.

It would be hard to imagine a better way to introduce a young antiques collector to a hobby that could last a lifetime than to start him or her off with the gift of a crystal figurine which, purchased second-hand, could be had for pocket money. However, hard-bitten collectors spend small fortunes on limited edition Swarovski collectables which can fetch serious money. Auction houses tend to sell the less expensive figures in groups of three to six with bids usually coming in at around the £40 to 60 mark. A rarity such as the 1989 limited edition of Turtle doves sells for around £350, while Lovebirds, dating from 1987 is dearer at around £500. Look for the swan trademark as proof of authenticity.

Picture shows: The Swarovski Crystal Society (SCS) produces a boxed collectors’ edition of figures with certificate each year. This example dates from the 1999 and is called 'Masquerade - Pierrot', designed by Adi Stocker

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Friday, 2 June 2006

Titanic memorabilia prices show no signs of sinking

Prices for Titanic memorabilia continue to spiral. In a Christie's sale in New York yesterday (Thursday June 1) a painted bronze flag with the insignia of the White Star line - owners of the liner - sold together with a Titanic name board from one of the lifeboats that carried passengers to safety after April 14, 1912 sinking sold for £38,600 ($72 000). They had been estimated at £27,000-38,000 ($50 000-70 000). A "Liverpool" port sign and another bronze Titanic name board, sold together for £32,000 ($60,000).

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Thursday, 1 June 2006

Antique paperweights can be worth their weight in gold

by Christopher Proudlove©
The paperweight sitting on my desk is something of an excuse for one. It's a cheap Victorian novelty job with a picture of an elephant stuck on the bottom, the distinctly odd-looking creature with its trunk wrapped around a zoo keeper. But its appeal lies in its oddness. Clearly the man who drew the elephant had never been to a zoo in his life.

Quality 19th century glass paperweights, on the other hand, usually sell for around £300, but the one illustrated here is something entirely different. It sold for a staggering £10,000, underlining the fervour with which collectors chase the rarities by the three French leading makers: La Compagnie de Cristalleries Baccarat, at Baccarat and the Cristallerie de St. Louis, at Louis-les-Bitche, both in the Lorraine area of France and makers of the weight illustrated - the Cristalleries de Clichy, just outside Paris.

Key to their success lay in the term millefiori, literally "a thousand flowers" and the adaptation of the process by one Pietro Bigaglia. A member of an old Venetian family of glass artists, he is generally credited with the manufacture of the first glass paperweight in 1845.

The Venetians had been making millefiori glass since the 15th century. Briefly, and in its simplest form, this involved fusing together rods of different coloured glass which were then reheated and stretched. The resulting long, thin stick was then chopped into dozens of short sticks or canes, numerous colour combinations of which were possible.

To make a paperweight, Pietro placed a selection of the canes in a mould in the desired pattern and fused them within a globule of clear molten glass held by a steel rod called a pontil. The dome was formed by shaping the molten glass to cover the exposed canes, the magnification effect being enhanced by the shaping and subsequent polishing achieved by rolling the dome over a wet, wooden block. Once cut from the pontil rod, the area around it was similarly smoothed and polished to form the flat base of the weight.

It sounds simple but, in truth, it was a highly skilled and time-consuming process. Recognition came when a quick-thinking representative of the then ailing French glass industry saw Pietro's efforts at a Viennese exhibition. Here was a product to put some commercial sparkle back into the business. The St Louis glassworks was the first to adopt the idea, although Clichy and Baccarat were quick to follow. Soon, French genius and artistry had overtaken the comparatively simple Bigaglia weights.

Numerous strikingly beautiful patterns were devised with complicated and highly colourful canes being employed to produce many expensive weights. Some rare examples even include dates and initials, often hidden in the intricate designs. Earliest dated weight was made in 1846, while one I've was dated 1853.

Baccarat weights sometimes include a letter B, while Clichy used a particular rose-shaped cane as a trademark, occasionally set with the letters C L. St Louis weights can be found bearing the initials S L. Bear in mind, however, that dated and marked weights are rarities. The authenticity of those in which such features appear to be too good to be true should be questioned with an expert before hard-earned cash is exchanged for one.

The expert would also be best able to point out the distinct characteristics of colouring and design employed by the three glass companies. St Louis, for example, specialised in a coloured overlay technique that covered the clear glass weight with blue, pink or green glass. The layer was then cut with windows, or "printies" to give them their technical term, through which the pattern or glass flowers in the centre of the weight could be seen.

Attractive swirl designs

Crossed garlands of millefiore and canes arranged in a way that look like mushrooms were other hallmarks of St Louis weights, while tightly packed canes covering the base, known as "close millefiore" was popular with Baccarat, as were butterflies. Clichy, on the other hand, excelled at flowers, particularly their rose trademark, attractive swirl designs and an easily identifiable moss green ground often studded with canes arranged in concentric circles.

Arguably the finest makers, Clichy were the only French glasshouse to be invited to exhibit their paperweights at the Great Exposition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and again, at the New York Crystal Palace in 1853. As a result, a great many were purchased as souvenirs by Victorian tourists and they continue to turn up in the salerooms. The key to success is being able to recognise them.

Another rarity you might care to search out features a green snake with red markings coiled around the weight. The creature sits on canes arranged to represent rocks or latticino, a lace-like cane arrangement either in a corkscrew swirl or as broken pieces known as "upset muslin." Even rarer versions have not a snake but a salamander.

If early French paperweights are out of your reach, versions produced in Bohemia, America and this country can come cheaper. Talented Englishman William T Gillander founded the New England Glass Co in America in 1853 and Frederick Carder founded the Steuben Glassworks at Corning, New York, in 1903. Both made paperweights in the UK and US but don't expect the same quality as the French. Failing that, you could buy new ones - one day they'll be collectors' items just like their great-grandfathers.

Pictures show, top: A fine Clichy paperweight sold recently for £10,000

Below: Six of the best: left to right, top: a St Louis weight, the bouquet centred by an African violet with a background of white latticino; a miniature Clichy weight decorated with stylised flowers.

Middle: a pretty St Louis bouquet weight, the flowers encircled by an unusual border of pink and white spiral twist latticino; a St Louis weight with a tiny bouquet in the centre which is magnified when viewed through any of the six facetted windows.
Bottom: a stylish Baccarat weight with star-cut base, the dome decorated with a Marguerite in bloom flanked by two buds; a Baccarat Clematis weight, also with a star-cut base

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