January 23, 2017
The history of Czech glass beads is a fascinating one, rich with generations of families who are still in the business today. Between the 12th and 14th centuries German Glass makers were invited to settle in the area of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire known as Bohemia, where there was unlimited sand, water and trees needed for their glass production. All over Northern Bohemia, little towns centered around glass making grew. Gablonz (Jablonec nad Nisou) was one of these towns.
The glass makers made many things; vases, stained glass windows, buttons, chandeliers, and beads. This was truly a cottage industry, many of these artisans worked in their homes with the entire families involved in the business. German speaking Bohemians and Czech speaking Bohemians had mingled for centuries. However along the northern area's of Bohemia such as Gablonz, the two ethnic groups maintained their own distinct communities while working together to contribute to the rise in popularity of glass beads and costume jewelry. The glass bead industry began to flourish as the demand for costume jewelry, largely invented by these glass makers, in Europe and America grew.
The Bohemians developed tools for press molding allowing them to be more efficient in producing larger quantities at lower costs. The heated glass is drawn and squeezed into the desired shape with the help of a tong that includes a mold at the end. This was primarily used for buttons and then eventually for beads. The first recorded showing of "press molded" beads was at a trade show in Praque in 1829. 20 years later glass beads were being produced by the millions in this tiny region, and being exported all over the world. The actual making of the beads still remained a cottage industry, where machines and molds were bought by families and used in their homes. Thus keeping their glass production quite private from the rest of the world. They would supply the larger trade companies with beads who would then sell them under their company brand name through "Sample Men" who traveled extensively throughout the world.
Along with the beadmakers and trade houses who represented them, there were glass houses who produced the glass canes and rods often from secret recipes, and the many glass cutters who hand cut crystals, beads, glass stones and chandelier parts with a water driven wheel made of tin operated by a foot pedal. One of the glass cutters in the area had a son who would go on to become the world's best known producer of machine cut crystal, his name was Daniel Swarovski. After visiting the "First Electricity Exhibition" in Vienna in 1883, Daniel went on to invent a stone cutting device that would ultimately position his company to excell as a leading supplier of crystal beads and stones even in todays time. In 1895 Swarovski and Weis moved the company to Wattens in Tyrol Austria to avoid Industrial spying by their competitors.
During the height of the regions industrial boom there were over 2000 agents and exporters of the world famous Bohemian glass in Gablonz. The break up of the Austrian Empire came at the end of WWI and Northern Bohemia became part of Czechoslovakia. The town of Gablonz was named Jablonec nad Nisou and glass production continued. By 1928 Czechoslovakia was the largest bead exporter in the world. The global impact of the 1930's saw a decline in trade and the events that lead up to WWII caused a halt in the manufacture of glass beads, while the making of weapons and ammunition took precedence.
At the end of the war in 1946, the Germans who had lived in the northern "Bohemian" area of Czechoslovakia were expelled from the country. They were given 48 hours to leave, many had never even been to Germany, their families had lived in this area for many generations. They left behind everything they owned; their houses, furniture, and businesses. The beautiful Bohemian glass industry was reduced to a shell of what it once was. Czech workers who were employed by them took over their factories, moved into their houses and tried to continue in a newly communist era. It wasn't until 1952 when a state run monopoly "Jablonex" was established controlling all glass bead exports.
The German Czechs streamed into Germany devastated by the war, an effort was made to keep all of the glass makers together in a town near Bavaria. They settled and named this town "Neu Gablonx. Over 2000 bead makers had settled here by 1947. They began to slowly rebuild their glass production. Neu Gablonx grew into a thriving glass bead producer just as they had in Bohemia.They are still making beads today in this part of Germany, but sadly glass bead making is declining in this region. Many of these families do not have anyone to teach their craft to and there is much competition these days in bead making from all over the world.
In 1989 Communism ended with the Velvet Revolution splitting Czechoslovakia into 2 countries; Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Jablonex company had lost it's monopoly but was still a large player in the industry. They bought up as many small glass businesses that they could, but without innovative and fresh marketing opportunities to develop export relationships they eventually folded. A company noted for their crystal chandeliers purchased them in 2010.They now control the largest bead and glass-works business in the Czech Republic. They still buy their beads from hundreds of small cottage industry bead and button makers from around the region as well as producing their own.
During our recent trip out west to Tucson, Arizona we had the pleasure of meeting with a few special importers of Czech Glass Beads. These beads have been and still continue to be some of my all time favorite beads! The colors of the glass are mesmerizing and the many shapes available, some old (from those old molds!), and some new, make them a wonderful choice for today's beadwork. Stop by Island Cove Beads & Gallery to "Czech" out our awesome selection of Czech glass beads!
Special Thanks to Jamie and Guy Lynn of Wildthings Beads for their wonderful treasure trove of information on this subject. I would also like to give credit to Sibylle Jargstorf's book "Baubles, Buttons and Beads: the Heritage of Bohemia", one of my favorite books about the Czech glass industry.
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