Now on View: Opalescent Glass

Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

About 6 months ago I wrote a blog post on iridescent glass, one of the many beautiful chemical treatments that lends to glass’ wide color range, prominently featured in our hallway. In our current exhibition of Art Deco Glass from the David Huchthausen Collection, an equally stunning treatment is on display: opalescent glass. Due to the volume of requests I’ve received on tours to explain “How did they do that?!” I thought this topic warranted its own blog post. What I believed to be a relatively straightforward discussion of the chemistry behind the milky glass of the 1920s became a deep dive into the fascinating history and development of color in glass, with surprisingly local ties.

Lamps like this example by Tiffany and Co. gained their watercolor like quality from cut sheets of opalescent glass.
Tiffany Studios, American, est. 1837. Daffodil Lamp. Leaded opalescent glass and gilt bronze, ca. 1904-1924. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard L. Chilton Jr., 2018. Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

While some sources say that opalescent glass was first manufactured by Venetian glass houses as early as the 16th century, most scholars agree that, like iridescent glass, this was likely due to the glass’ aging process over time rather than an intentional treatment. The development of what is commonly referred to as opalescent glass today began in the late 19th century, when Americans John LaFarge and Louis C. Tiffany simultaneously began searching for a new, textural glass with shifting colors. This new glass would serve as a beautiful design element in its own right compared to the traditional method of producing stained glass in the Middle Ages, which relied on painting for intricacy. John LaFarge was the first designer to incorporate opalescent glass into a window and received a patent for his new product on February 24, 1880, with Tiffany receiving several patents for variations in November of the same year. LaFarge was persuaded by Tiffany, with hints of a future partnership and possible collaborations, to waive his patent, but the promises never materialized. Needless to say, competition and animosity between the two men grew. (You can learn more about LaFarge in the upcoming exhibition An American Renaissance in Fort Wayne: Muralists from the Allen County Courthouse, opening July 15th). 

Both men found their premier glass source in Kokomo, Indiana. Local speculators found a large source of natural gas in the town in 1886, leading to the founding of the glassworks by successful glass chemist Charles Edward Henry in 1888. Henry already had connections in the glass industry, including Louis C. Tiffany. His first shipment of glass out of his new Midwest facility was to none other than the famous glass designer himself, who was looking for a source to produce his new opalescent glass. While Henry’s new development was a hit with the public, even earning him a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1900, his poor business skills plummeted the company into bankruptcy within the year. Three local Kokomo businessmen, seeing the company’s value, purchased the glassworks and led it successfully. Quickly, Kokomo Opalescent Glass became known for its astounding range of vivid and rich swirled colors (now at over 22,000 offerings) which have ended up in some of the most famous buildings in the world: the Tiffany domes in Chicago’s Cultural Center, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana Thomas House in Springfield, IL, and even St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

This little historical journey has covered one type of opalescent glass—that of the late 19th and early 20th century, usually in the form of stained glass, and always made from unique sheets of colored glass. How then do we get to the translucent, milky white gems of animals and floral designs of the Art Deco period? In the late 19th century, it was discovered that covering a gather of colored glass with a layer of colorless glass containing bone ash and arsenic created a pearly, white color when reheated. By slowly cooling the molten glass in thick areas, crystallization occurs inside the glass, leading to a shifting white gradient. Companies like Davidson’s of England and Fenton Art Glass in America used this technique to highlight the designs on their pressed wares, concentrating opalescent sections to rims and raised elements. Davidson’s would name this line “Pearline”, and it would be extremely popular well into the 20th century. 

J. H. Hobbs, Brockunier and Co., American, est. 1845. Hobnail Finger Bowl. Pressed cranberry and opalescent glass, ca. after 1886. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Emily Winthrop Miles, 1946. Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

While this progression isn’t strictly linear, I think it’s safe to say that the Art Deco companies who really took opalescent glass to its ultimate level looked at these past iterations for inspiration. From early opalescent manufacturers like Tiffany, companies such as Lalique, Sabino, Pierre D’Avsen, and Etling admired the mutable, changing nature of the glass with light. From the colorful candy-like wares of Davidson’s, they realized that opalescence drew emphasis to the glass design itself. Therefore, the third iteration of opalescent glass was born: that of the clean, streamlined, mystical, and, usually colorless, variety. The removal of color allowed the beauty of the shifting blue to orange tinge to shine– literally. Thanks to the piece’s core being the opaquest, often Deco opalescent wares seem to glow from within, changing from golden when lit from behind to blue when lit head on. For all those science nerds out there, this is due to the Tyndal scattering effect (a new term for me)—the same reason a misty forest has a shimmering effect when lit by a sunbeam.

Marius-Ernest Sabino, French, b. Italy 1878-1961. Groupe de Pantheres (Group of Panthers). Pressed opalescent glass, ca. 1928-1938. Loan from the Collection of David Huchthausen, organized by Museum of Glass, Tacoma, WA. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Glass.

This panther figurine by Marius Sabino, currently on display, shows the true splendor of opalescent glass. The animal’s taut muscles are showcased by a slight iridescence as the light shifts, and its powerful body is emphasized with the piece’s milky core. As the sculpture radiates from the center, the more elegant parts of the panther, such as its head and curling tail, fade into a magical luminance. It is no surprise that with this level of skill the company became known for these small figurines, and almost exclusively produced products in opalescent glass. Unlike most other art deco glass companies, the Sabino Crystal Factory is still active today and uses original molds in their production.

While the mass craving for art glass may not be as strong as in previous decades, developments such as opalescent glass remind us of the immense beauty and limitlessness of the material.  Additionally, with strong regional ties, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art is proud to showcase a medium that brought Northern Indiana to some of the world’s most important and sacred spaces.

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