The word “Bohemia” shimmers with romance, evoking images of wild-haired maidens skipping around maypoles or free-spirited artists starving in picturesque garrets. But for those in whom the passion for collecting antique costume jewelry burns with a hard, gem-like flame, “Bohemia” means something else entirely. It refers to that region of Central Europe which was named Czechoslovakia following World War I. In 1993, that nation split into two independent states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But it was in this region that the making of glass jewelry flourished for hundreds of years.
The Taste for Paste
Glass jewelry first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt during the third century B.C. Skilled artisans boiled sand and soda to form a scalding luminescent soup. They added a pinch of metallic oxide for color, creating adornments of such workmanship and beauty that they remain objects of wonder even today, despite 2,000 years of technological advances.
From the Egyptians, the recipe for glassmaking passed to the Romans and then to the Venetians, who developed a water-clear, colorless product named cristallo. By the 11th century trade in crystal and glass had made the Venetian Republic rich. To protect this lucrative industry, special laws were enacted forbidding glassworkers, on pain of death, from revealing their secrets to foreigners. So closely guarded were the Venetian formulas that it was not until 1681 that an enterprising Englishman, George Ravenscroft, developed his own method of making lead crystal, which was used to make artificial gems.
In 1780, Frenchman Georges-Frederic Strass introduced a form of glass jewelry eponymously known as “strass” – or “paste” – to the court of Louis XVI, where it was an immediate success. Indeed, even Marie Antoinette is said to have bedecked herself with paste ornaments as a change of pace from diamonds.
Meanwhile, Back in Bohemia Once part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, this region of Central Europe has the longest tradition of glassmaking on the continent. The industry was centered in Gablonz, a tiny village located on the Niesse River in a valley of Bohemia’s Iser Mountains. Gablonz had all the natural resources needed to make glass. Equally important, it was located near important trade routes and business centers, so that it was accessible to the influence of Venetian artisans. By the mid-16th century, these advantages, sweetened by compelling offers from landowners intent on improving the region’s economy, started drawing glassmakers to the area.
During the long winters, local farmers augmented meager incomes by grinding native stones on hand-driven wheels. By the 1700s they were applying these techniques to glass and fabricating simple beads.
Initially they worked only with colored, hollow glass tubes heated over fire-lamps and shaped with molding tongs. Soon, inspired by the master glass artists of Venice and Murano, they turned out beads of every description: blown, drawn, spun, marbled, painted, faceted, engraved, handcut, wound and press-molded beads that could be given a satin-like finish, and even lined with gold or silver.
These techniques were then applied to the making of simulated gemstones as well. Dazzling simulated rubies, emeralds, sapphires and amethysts, as well as simulated opaques like jade or malachite and artificial pearls compounded from ground fish scales, all emerged from Gablonz’s glassworks. Each region in which artisans lived developed its own identifiable cutting characteristics and everything that was produced was immediately gobbled up by a world hungering for these glittering goods. Tiny Gablonz – and Bohemia itself – had turned into the world center of simulated gems.
A Family Affair
Individual families became specialists in each step of the process. Some fabricated the beads or stones. Others cut, polished or decorated them by a range of techniques that included painting, enameling, gilding, pearling and foilbacking – a process in which foil was placed beneath a faceted stone to add sparkle when viewed though the table and crown facets. Still others specialized in lining, electroplating, engraving, or setting the beads and stones. Up until World War II, succeeding generations of these same families continued the tradition. It lasted almost 300 years.
From Cottage Industry to World Monopoly
Before the introduction of sophisticated distribution and marketing techniques, the cheap handmade cut glass stones and settings were snatched up by exporters who sold them to dress-beading workshops in Paris, Budapest and London. Always a steady business, a passion for lavishly beaded clothing and the use of “trinket jewelry” by trendsetting Paris couturiers caused the simulated gem industry to explode in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th century.
Technology and production kept pace with fashion’s insatiable appetite for glass jewelry. During the late 1800s Daniel Swarovski, of Georgenthal in northern Bohemia, introduced machinery to mass-produce rhinestones (the word originally referred to the pebbles in the Rhine) further spurring industry expansion. And in the 20th century, when costume jewelry became socially acceptable, the industry received another enormous boost. The phrase “costume jewelry” was first introduced by The New Yorker magazine in 1933.
Glassmakers and Gurtlers: A Flourishing Partnership
German metalworkers, known as Sudeten or Northern Bohemian Germans, settled around Gablonz in the early 1700s. Cooperation between them and the local Czechs was immediate and lasted for generations. These metalworkers or gurtlers – the German word for “beltmakers” – would place the cut stones in claw settings for buttons and belt closings. Soon they were assembling metal elements for chains, hat and hair ornaments, brooches, shirt studs and pendants. By creating settings for the stones in non-precious metals such as tin, brass, copper, and tombec (imitation gold) the gurtlers made jewelry affordable for a broad market.
Styles We Loved… And Still Do
Over the centuries Czech artisans produced so many hundreds of designs that this article can only focus upon the ones collectors consider “typically” Czech; that is, those in which artificial gems are set in brass filigree. Originally this intricate work was handmade from patterned wire painstakingly worked by hand. When stamping was introduced, settings could be assembled more speedily in a less labor-intensive operation. The metal would be cut into strips, a filigree pattern stamped out and cut elements soldered on. Sometimes this filigree was so exquisitely wrought that even experienced collectors could be convinced the pieces were completely handmade. Indeed, one family – the Neigers – achieved fame for executing the backs of their pieces as faultlessly as the fronts. As a rule, the finer the reverse side, the higher the quality of the piece.
Brass gurtler-work could be further enhanced by fire-gilding, engraving, electroplating or enameling. Inspiration came from a variety of sources. Traditional, romantic, geometric and naturalistic forms sparked the imaginations of Czech artisans. Flowers, leaves, feathers and shell shapes were popular in the late 1800s and again in the 1930s. Egyptian and Oriental themes prevailed in the 1920s and Art Deco influenced the following decades. Stones such as lapis, carnelian, jade and imitations of natural materials such as amber, coral and ivory, also enjoyed public favor.
Because of the high quality of Czech jewelry, one might wonder why pieces were almost never signed with a family name or even country of origin. The answer is simple snobbery. Only the magic word “Paris” on a jewel could reassure the average customer of its chic. French couture houses often bought Czech stones and settings, assembled them and put their own names on the finished piece. Later, when the American costume jewelry industry developed, our manufacturers followed suit, signing such names as Coro, Eisenberg, Haskell and Trifari to creations whose elements originated in Bohemia.
Shattered Glass: The End of a Tradition
Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 destroyed a long and honorable tradition based on amiable cooperation between different ethnic groups. Jewish Gablonzers fled the area or risked deportation. Some who escaped re-established their businesses in Great Britain or the U.S., while a number of the remaining “pure” Germans or Czechs moved their factories to the town of Neu Gablonz in Germany where they rebuilt the industry.
After World War II, Czech production resumed. However, in 1946 – during a period of intense political turmoil – the Czech government expelled the Sudeten German community and nationalized the glass industry. It exists today in a far less colorful, more standardized form. Perhaps the glory of the Bohemian jewelrymaking tradition lives on most meaningfully in such examples as the wonderful treasures of glass and brass created in a more peaceful and less political era.
Greindl, Gabrielle. Gems of Costume Jewelry. Abbeville Press, Inc., New York., N.Y., 1991.
Jargstorf, Sibylle. Baubles, Buttons and Beads, The Heritage of Bohemia. Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, Pa. 1993.
Schwager, Edward. The History of the Production of Ornamental Jewels in Tyrol.
Jargstorf, Sybille. Glass in Jewelry. Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, Pa.,1990.