Research on Antiques & Collectibles

AMERICAN BRILLIANT CUT GLASS:  Cutting and Engraving During the "Brilliant Period" (1880-1915)

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American Brilliant Cut Glass is highly desired and has become an antique of choice for many collectors. Only a few years ago, most Auction Salesrooms and Internet venues made available a huge number of antique American Cut Glass, which contributed to it becoming even more popular. This article explains the basic manufacturing process of how American Brilliant Cut Glass is made and some of the intricate steps required to give it the brilliant finish it is named after.

The glass blank when ready for cutting was first marked with the general lines of the pattern. Sometimes it was divided into squares with the aid of calipers. Other times some of the detail was left unmarked to allow the cutter some freedom in the execution of the design.

In deep cutting, the first workman to handle the blank after the pattern had been traced was the "rougher". He used steel wheels of varying sizes called "mills" which had a sharp, mitered edge. It gave the first important cuts of the design. Above the wheel of every cutter was a tunnel from which wet sand dripped constantly upon the wheel. The combination of sand and whirling wheel ground the glass down to the proper depth. It took long practice to acquire the necessary skill. A typical apprenticeship usually lasted five years.

The glass was then given to the "smoother" who used special stones imported from Scotland and England. They were known by the old county names of Yorkshire Flag, New Castle and Craigleith. They were very hard, close grained and capable of retaining a very sharp edge. With these, the worker made the very fine cuts, stars, crosses, fans, small diamonds, scallops, etc we now know on antique Brilliant Cut Glass. He also refined the lines made by the rougher restoring their translucency. The stone was mitered to the same angle as the cuts so that he could hold the blank upon the face of the wheel. An intricate design often required many days of constant manipulation. To prevent shattering of the glass, a lump of wet clay was sometimes held inside the object to absorb the vibration of the wheels. Dripping water from an overhead suspended hopper kept the emery wheels wet and cool.

To obtain the best results, polishing was done in three stages. First, it was done with wooden wheels fed with pumice, stone and water; then brush or wool wheels with the same preparation, and lastly cork or felt wheels with finely compounded putty powder. About the turn of the century, the acid bath, quicker and less expensive came into use for polishing. It was hand-burnishing, however, that gave the superb brilliance down to the smallest detail.

Engraving is cutting requiring copper wheels, some of them as dainty as a diamond. Linseed oil and pumice are used instead of the coarser abrasives. This method made possible a different type of minutely detailed decoration, usually left unpolished with a gray white surface. When polished some companies called it "Rock Crystal" being imitative of the natural quartz of that name.

The decorator of an engraved piece might either outline his design upon the glass or might start directly with the wheel, developing it with independence as an artist might in painting. Engraving generally was used for realistic subjects rather than for the geometric patterns.

Intaglio glass is cut glass, which is "carved" out deeply or "sculptured" usually but not always left unpolished. This type of cutting gives depth and perspective to the subject matter and the silver gray finish is in sharp contrast to the rest of the piece which is polished. The H. P. Sinclaire Co., Libbey, Hawkes and Tuthill, to name a few, did exceptional work in intaglio which many consider the highest form of the cutter's art. The Hawkes company, for a brief period after 1900 did intaglio of exceptional merit called "Hawkes Gravic Glass." The iris, carnation and astor flowers and miter and fruit were the usual subjects. Many examples of intaglio glass by these companies have now become very collectible. Every collection of fine cut glass should include at least one or two pieces although they are not plentiful and may be expensive. When acquiring this type of glass, the amount of detail and nuances in the shading, originality of style and precision of the cutting should be major considerations in addition to the quality and form of the glass used.