A Stroke of Brilliance

by MCHS Staff
August 8, 2023

When “rich-cut glass” made its debut at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, a new era in American decorative arts began. While glass cutting began in Germany, advancements such as the addition of high-quality silica and lead to the glass formula, along with the limitless creativity and skill of artists, ushered in the Brilliant Period of American cut glass.

Creating Brilliant Cut Glass was a complex endeavor requiring skill, strength, and stamina. Starting with blanks of blown glass, specialized artisans would mark with a blue pencil where the deepest, pattern-defining cuts were to be made. The cuts would then be roughed-in by pressing the far side of the blank against a grinding wheel. The first cuts were fairly easy as the artisan could initially see through the glass, but his view became increasingly obscured as more cuts were made. It therefore required great skill and experience to create cuts of uniform depth, shape, and spacing.

Polishing on progressively smoother and softer grinding wheels followed, taking several hours to complete. Early in the Brilliant Period, one artisan was responsible for all stages of work, but over time it became more practical and economical for up to eight artisans to each specialize in one phase of the process. Costly in labor and materials, the art form was accessible only to the wealthiest individuals, driving the development of procedures that sped the process and lowered the cost. However, the global demand for lead and manpower caused by the outbreak of WWI shattered the American Brilliant Cut Glass industry. Limited production continued, but never returned to pre-war levels, nor did the glass’s lead content, which gave it much of its sparkle. Today, the brilliance of American cut glass from the period remains unparalleled, and its pieces are treasured as remarkable examples of a uniquely American decorative art form.