Mexico has always been revered as a land of the master craftsman. Glass blowing is an ancient art dating back to the first century BC. Sometime in the mid 1500’s the very first glass made in North America was produced in Puebla Mexico by artisans brought to Mexico by the Spanish. For centuries, with nothing more than a globule of molten glass, some primitive tools and a long hollow pipe, these skilled artisans managed to produce glass items in a variety of shapes and sizes. Although these original glass works were not long lived, the art of glass blowing resurfaced in Mexico hundreds of years ago and prospered, due fundamentally to the availability and minimalism of the ingredients as well as the extremely artistic ingenuity of the Mexican Arts and Crafts Tradition.
Throughout the years, trends have come and gone, but beautiful, hand-blown glass has always been “in”. The people who create pieces from blown glass are highly skilled artisans who have taken years to perfect their craft. And when they’re working with recycled glass, even more so. Most glass blowers have been practicing their trade their entire lives, and the skills are passed down from generation to generation.
Though most of us are familiar with the end result, unique pieces of handblown glass work that are truly beautiful and one of a kind, most are not as familiar with the process. Sure, we’ve all seen the pictures of balls of molten glass on the end of a tube while an artisan works over a hot furnace. But there is so much more to the story than that.
The process begins with melting the glass; when working with recycled glass from old soda bottles and other sources, the first step may be washing and sorting the glass. Once the glass is prepared, it goes into a crucible to melt.
The glass blower dips the end of a four- or five-foot blowpipe into the molten glass in a process called gathering. The molten glass reaches temperatures around 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit! The artisan dips and turns their blowpipe until they have a blob of molten glass on the end.
Now here’s the challenge. At that temperature, the glass is essentially liquid! It takes skill and constant motion to keep the glass on the pipe.
The next step is to smooth the surface of the glass blob; that’s done on a marver table. Next the real magic begins. The artisan blows through the pipe to form a small air bubble in the molten glass. They have to be careful not to blow too hard, or too much. It’s a delicate process and the goal is to create a thin layer of glass. This is also the point where different colors can be added.
Temperature control is extremely important and the artisan will reheat the glass as needed to maintain the ideal temperature for blowing. They’ll continue to shape the glass, adding more and more layers in a delicate balancing act. If the glass gets too cold, it cracks; if it’s too hot, it won’t blow out evenly. The next step is to smooth the sides of the piece on wooden blocks soaked in water, followed by more blowing to finish the shape.
There are two main forms of glass blowing. Free blowing came first and the artisan uses quick puffs of air to shape the glass by hand. In mold blowing, the artisan inflates the glass using a mold to shape each piece.
Once the shaping is complete, the glass is removed from the blow pipe and placed in an extremely hot kiln to slowly cool. If it cools too rapidly, it will crack. The cooled glass is taken out, inspected and given a light polish and then it’s done!
Glass blowing is a challenging art in and of itself, but when working with recycled materials that may not all have the same melting points, it becomes an even greater challenge. Skilled artisans will use the differences in recycled glass to their advantage, using them to create different colors, textures and patterns in the finished product.
Hand-blown glass isn’t perfect. Though they won’t be found in every piece, it’s not uncommon to find tiny traces of non-glass material in artisan blown glass, especially if it’s made from recycled materials. It might also be bits of sand, or other materials picked up from the furnace or the mold. Small bubbles and minor surface imperfections are also not uncommon and don’t negatively impact the structure or beauty of the glass.