Glass paperweights first appeared in the early part of the 19th century and the majority came from Europe in order to avoid the very high glass tax in the UK. Once the glass tax was abolished in 1845 we see paperweights with millefiori and lampwork techniques. Millefiori means thousand flowers, the look was created by Italian craftsmen on the island of Murano who used small pieces of glass cane which was arranged in patterns. Lampwork uses coloured glass rods to make flowers, birds and insects which are then encased in clear glass.
All factories that made paperweights had their own cane designs and colours and these are a help with identification, although there are still quite a number of paperweights whose makers have not been identified. This is particularly true of English weights that are called Stourbridge. Among the early makers are George Bacchus from Birmingham and the Richardson factory in Stourbridge, although you need to be careful as many weights thought to be from this period have been identified as coming from the 20th century factory of Walsh and Arculus in Birmingham.
The production period of these early glass paperweights was very short, probably something to do with the appearance of cheap souvenir paperweights that were bought as a reminder of popular places. Early souvenir paperweights had pen and ink sketch transfers fixed to the underside of a clear glass blank, later sepia or coloured photos were used. In the late 19th century there would have been early advertising weights using flat moulded glass blank with advertising material impressed on the underside and often filled with different colour paints.
After 1915 the Ysart family, who came to Scotland from France where Salvador Ysart had learned the trade, displayed their amazing talent and skills by making paperweights under the Monart label. Paul Ysart, the son, carried the skill forward into the next generation and made paperweights for the next fifty years. in 1946 Salvador, Vincent and Antoine set up Vasart Glass, later renamed Strathearn Glass and it was then bought by Stuart Crystal. During this period millefiori weights were produced in large numbers and they can be picked up at reasonable prices.
Paperweights from the UK and America started to appear which were probably made to exhibit at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. The Italian and French manufacturers didn’t continue with mass production after the early 1850s but the Bohemians carried on for at least another ten years. The majority of the glass paperweights was made at factories in Baccarat, St Louis and Clichy in France, only Baccarat and St Louis survived into the 20th century. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 rekindled the interest in glass paperweights and Baccarat made a sulphite of the heads of the Queen and Prince Philip while St Louis made a paperweight featuring only the Queen.
In the UK Whitefriars Glass made glass paperweights for the Festival of Britain in 1951 featuring concentric rings of canes with the name Triplex in the centre and they also made a glass paperweight for the Queen’s Coronation. 1962 saw the creation of Caithness Glass in Scotland, the factory was in Wick in the north of Scotland. The current makers, Peter Holmes and William Manson were trained by Paul Ysart. Caithness Glass has changed hands several times and is currently owned by Dartington Glass.
Nowadays the best and most expensive glass paperweights come from America. These artists have their own studios using the best quality glass. The most likely weights you will find in the shops and galleries are Caithness and Isle of Wight as well as Murano, Malta and Gozo, Bohemia and China. If you want to find a really unusual weight you should go to one of the glass fairs where the studio glass artists exhibit their wares.
There is a good selection of books on collecting glass paperweights and a lot of makers have their own websites and there are also two collectors’ societies in the UK – The Paperweight Collectors’ Circle and the Northern Paperweight Society as well as a number of international paperweight societies.
Paperweights have gone somewhat out of fashion in recent years which is a perfect reason to start collecting them. The competition is not too fierce and there are bargains if you do your research and know what you are looking for.