Weighty Wonders

Today on Museum Bites we’re visiting the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA) and their brilliant collection of glass paperweights. Unlike their snow globe cousins, these shimmery tchotchkes contain mini-worlds that have been forged in fire and frozen in glass. Butterflies, bouquets, and bees are commonly featured in these radiant orbs, but paperweights have an edgy side too. Coiled snakes, dancing devils, and even lattes have inspired their design. Join me for a brief look into these weighty wonders.


Historical Glass:  Prior to telephones and the internet, letter writing was our main form of social media. And paperweights served as a pretty and practical means of keeping all those pesky papers in check. In 1845, Venetian glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia was the first to exhibit his millefiori paperweights at the Vienna Industrial Exposition. The public went wild and the glass paperweight became the got-to-have-it luxury item of the mid to late 1800s. Glassmakers were giddy with this new and much-needed revenue stream, but by the early 1900s, production began to wane. A brief revival of this handmade craft occurred in the 1960s, and today, only a small number of glass artists have maintained this painstaking craft.  Whether antique or fresh from the furnace, these lovely pieces are avidly collected and grace the exhibit halls of many museums.

Fun Weighty Fact #1:  Famous glass paperweight collectors include: Colette, Oscar Wilde, Empress Eugenie of France, King Farouk of Egypt, Eva Peron, Truman Capote, and Bill Clinton.

Stylish Glass:  Glass paperweights come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The three main types include millefiori, lampwork, and sulphide.

James Powell & Sons (Whitefriars) Ltd. Paperweight (1979), FIA, Photo by cjverb (2018)-300px
James Powell & Sons (Whitefriars) Ltd. Paperweight (1979), FIA, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Millefiori (aka thousand flowers in Italian) paperweights contain an array of miniature flowers. The millefiori style is achieved when multi-colored layers of molten glass are shaped into a cylinder and then pulled to create a thin rod. The rod is sliced and the flower pattern appears in the cross-section. The tiny floral cylinders are then placed in a mold and doused with molten glass. A similar process is used to infuse hard candy and taffy with clever images. The millefiori design dates back 2,000 years and has been used to create jewelry and decorate tableware. Click on this How It’s Made video clip to see how millefiori paperweights are made. And for an additional treat, click on this mouthwatering Food Insider clip to see the crafty similarities between making rock candy and millefiori. Bon appetit!

Lampwork Paperweight by G. Smith, FIA, Photo by cjverb (2018)-300px
Lampwork Paperweight by G. Smith, FIA, Photo by cjverb (2018)

A school of fish, bouquet of flowers, coiled snake, and basket of fruit are just some of the delightful lampwork paperweights on display at the FIA. Tricked out in exquisite detail and eye-popping colors, lampwork paperweights hold mini 3-D objects made entirely of glass. Imagine sitting for hours creating these delicate objects only to have them shatter when attempting to immerse them in molten glass. Even master glassmakers occasionally suffer these types of setbacks. Click on this entertaining Oregon Art Beat clip to witness how these fascinating spheres come to life.

Clichy Sulphide Paperweight (c1850), FIA, Photo by cjverb (2018)-300px
Sulphide Paperweight by Clichy (c1850), FIA, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Sulphide paperweights resemble cameos and medallions. They are typically created for commemorative purposes and feature a ceramic portrait of a famous person or historic occasion. Sulphide paperweights are created by overlaying these bas-relief pieces with glass.

Fun Weighty Fact #2:  Paperweights that feature a glass cane with the letter B are designed by Baccarat. Clichy is identified by their signature rose cane repeated throughout their millefiori paperweights, and Saint-Louis paperweights often feature a dancing devil silhouette.

Designer Glass:  Paperweights come in many designs, from the smooth and simple crimp to a multi-faceted millefiori. Glassmakers, like jewelers, sometimes add facets to their paperweights. Facets are cuts made to create lens-like windows called printies that enhance the visual goodies embedded within.


The crimp paperweight is characterized by its lush flowers and footed base. The effect is achieved by using a metal crimping tool—hence the name—to create and implant flower petals and accompanying leaves into the heated and semi-soft glass sphere.

Lace paperweights feature misty or gauzy backgrounds created by mixing together a swirl of opaque threads of glass. Millefiori, pinwheels, and even snakes are nestled atop these lacy backdrops.


Milky white ribbons of glass are woven together to form the latticinio paperweight. These woven backgrounds provide a delicate base for fruit and flowers. The latticinio pattern comes from latte, the Italian word for milk.

The twirling torsade paperweight is characterized by its dual-colored ribbons of glass that have been twisted together in a candy cane-like border or base.


Marbrie (French for marble) paperweights are created by threading and swirling colored glass to create a marble-like effect. The colors blend together at the ends where they converge on a single point called a crown.

The painstaking process of creating these weighty wonders requires nerves of steel, the humility, and patience of a saint, nimble and heat resistant fingers, and a clever and creative imagination. Whether you’re a collector, admirer or new to the paperweight world I encourage you to check out the FIA’s fascinating display.

That wraps up our look at glass paperweights. Next week, we’ll continue our ramble through the Flint Institute of Arts with a look at their stunning collection of glass sculpture. Until then, have a wonderful week!

Orchid Bouquet Orb by P. Stankard, FIA, Photo by cjverb (2018)-100px Orchid Bouquet Orb by P. Stankard, Flint Institute of Arts, Photo by cjverb (2018)


Britannica: Baccarat


Corning Museum of Glass: Evolution of the Paperweight

Corning Museum of Glass: Pietro Bigaglia

Flint Institute of Arts

Food Insider: How Rock Candy Is Made

How It’s Made: Millefiori Glass Paperweights

Illinois State Museum

New York Times

Oregon Art Beat: Lampwork Paperweights by Chris Buzzini


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