|Bernice Woodson - Contributing Writer of Dolce & Vivace|
Whether as a subtle spot of color dangling from an ear, or a bold statement necklace paired with a neutral turtleneck, Murano glass jewelry is always in vogue. But how is this enchanting jewelry made? Where does it come from?
In northern Italy, in the Venetian Lagoon, there lies a string of islands linked by bridges. These islands house some of the best glassmakers in the world.
The history of Murano glass started during the Roman era, in the city-state of Venice. By 1291, the city of Venice successfully relocated all glassmakers to the islands of Murano as a fire prevention measure, and to prevent glassmaking secrets from leaking to other parts of Europe. Since that time, the delicate art of glassmaking has been honed, mastered, and perfected on these islands.
One of the many forms of highly prized Murano glass is components for Murano glass jewelry. Each delicate pendant, bead, and the disc is painstakingly made by hand by skilled artisans. No two Murano glass beads are identical. Each has its own charm.
A Murano glass bead starts out as simple components. A metal rod, traditionally copper, but replaced over time by stainless steel due to environmental concerns. Glass rods in a rainbow of colors and a range of diameters. An open flame, originally fanned by bellows, but now most likely natural gas, or a gas and oxygen mix. Tools formed from pear wood, graphite, or iron, much the same as used by glass masters 700 years ago.
One of the keys to Murano glass jewelry components is the heat source, called “il lume”, or lamp in Italian. Commonly known as lampwork, each component is formed over an open flame. The temperature of the torch is carefully controlled, with some artisans preferring to use a gas and oxygen mix for a hotter flame.
The artisan uses a steel rod, called a mandrel to make each bead. The rod is dipped in a paste to help remove the bead from the mandrel when the process is complete.
Depending on the intricacy of the component, the artisan will have a selection of colored glass rods available. The base color is selected and held in the yellow-blue flame until it starts to flow. A glob of glass is applied to the mandrel, which is spun in the flame until it forms a sphere. A single color bead might be finished at this point. More intricate beads are made by adding layers of different colors by the same process. The artisan might use a smaller diameter rod to add dots or lines to the component. She might heat a rod and pull it into a very thin thread, called a stringer, to add swirls or details like leaves, vines, or fronds to intricate designs. Detail must be added while the base component is still liquid, and while the mandrel is rotated consistently be hand. It is an art that takes skill, patience, and practice to master.
When the artisan is satisfied with the design, she will often add a layer of clear glass over the component to make it smooth, and to make it glisten.
Round beads are not the only style of Murano glass jewelry. Often artisans use tools to shape the glass into delicate shapes. A glass design can be flattened, twisted, and molded using the same type of tools used by the masters who developed the Murano glass processes.
When a component is complete, it must then be annealed. If a very hot glass component is allowed to cool in the open air, it would crack, develop tiny cracks, or even explode. To prevent this, the mandrel, with the bead still on one end, is plunged into a substance that cools the component slowly and prevents damage caused by hot glass impacted by cool air. The cooling agent of choice is vermiculite, which causes the heat to dissipate slowly, allowing the piece to cool evenly.
The components are then strung on chain, fiber, or leather to create Murano glass necklaces and bracelets. Beads, discs, and swirls are paired with metal components, or findings, to create delicate Murano glass earrings and Murano glass rings.
Murano glass, in all of its many forms, has always been highly prized. We can enjoy Murano glass jewelry as a delicate compliment to a favorite dress or as a bold statement piece, knowing that each piece of Murano glass jewelry is made individually by hand, using centuries-old processes, passed down through families to become a beautiful addition to any collection.
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