An article by Martha Louise Swan
as published in Antiques & Collecting Magazine
I opened my front door. There stood David, a young bank clerk who had studied piano with me for four years. He was holding a large cut glass vase and smiling. He wanted me to tell him if it was American Brilliant Period glass and if he had paid a fair price: $300.
The moment I saw the tiny sharp points on the edge, felt its light weight and extremely sharp cutting, I must have winced. The vase was 16″ tall; the lower half, in a spherical shape, was 10″ wide. It sloped outward to the top, 8″ in diameter. The design was all-over “Russian” (Daisy and Button in pressed glass). I had to tell him it was a current reproduction; its provenance, the border of Turkey.
Anyone who has been collecting Brilliant Period cut glassware would have recognized a forgery; a novice buyer may not. Other types of counterfeit cut glass are not as easily recognized by anyone. These will be described after we show what to look for in genuine cut glass of the Brilliant Period (approximately 1876 to 1916).
Characteristics of the Finest Brilliant Glass
First, let us generalize. Some manufacturers made their own blanks and cut them, even while selling blanks to various cutting shops. Not all cut glass from around the turn of the century was equally fine. Some companies specified degrees of excellence. Pitkin Brooks of Chicago sold three grades of glass: P & B, their finest, hand-finished grade; Standard, “superior to 75 percent of cut glass manufactured in the country;” and Imported, made in large quantities to Pitkin & Brooks specifications, “superior to the product of some American Manufacturers.”
Other firms, such as H.C. Fry of Rochester, PA, produced excellent ware for several years, then went downhill during the second decade of this century. From 1901 for about ten years, Fry’s glass contained a large proportion of lead and the finest quartz. The glass was excellent in clarity and color, the cutting was sharp and accurate; blanks were unusual in shape. During the teens, Fry began making pressed blanks to be touched up on a wheel to simulate the finer hand-blown pieces.
Some other companies did the same, yet a few continued their high standards into the twenties and beyond. We must, therefore, acquire the necessary knowledge to discriminate what we wish to buy in order to avoid costly mistakes.
Criteria for Judging Fine Pieces
The Blank for Quality Ware- A good blank is the first essential element to look for. Take the piece to a window in daylight and look through uncut sections. The glass should be perfectly clear and should not distort leaves on outside foliage or have swirls or shadows.
Hawkes advertised in many publications that theirs was “genuine cut glass, absolutely flawless,” cut “from the solid blank. It has a brilliant luster equaled only by that of a diamond and is as clear as crystal.” In l909 and 1910 Hawkes declared that they still manufactured their own blanks, insuring a uniform color, while some competitors bought blanks from various sources. A less than optimum combination of ingredients sometimes resulted in a grayish or pinkish cast to the metal.
Mr. Hawkes had opened his own shop in1880, using blanks made by his friend, Amory Houghton, Sr. of Corning Glass Works and those of Dorflinger. In 1903 he persuaded Frederick Carder of England to manage a new factory-completely financed by Hawkes-to be called the Steuben Glass Works. Eventually he used some blanks imported from European firms (including Stevens & Williams and Thomas Webb in England, Bacarat in France, and Val St. Lambert in Belgium) and a few from Libbey, Fry, Pairpoint, Union and Heisey.
Both Libbey and Hawkes advertised extensively in magazines and jewelers’ publications; both touted the fine quality of their products and the prizes won at exhibitions. Hawkes sold only to legitimate jewelers, so was protected from price-cutting and being forced to lower standards.
Pressed or Blown-molded Blanks- Whereas Hawkes and other fine companies cut mainly hand-blown, solid blanks (with the exception of boxes and shaped, fluted bowls), lesser shops often used pressed or “figured” blanks. If pressed, the plunger deadened refraction of light on the inner surface. Even if blown into a figured mold (made of iron lines with a resinous beeswax), results did not compare with the free-blown pieces. The principal miter “cuts,” into which the molten glass flowed, were in the mold. After cooling, cuts were touched up on a wheel or brush, and a few small motifs were actually cut and left gray. This inferior process saved hours of labor and much expense, so that the pieces could be sold more cheaply by stores, by jewelers who did not cater to the best trade, or by mail-order.
Figured blanks can be detected by passing the fingers over the inner surface of the piece, which is slightly raised wherever the pattern is deepest.
Accuracy of Cutting- Cutting was done on a steel wheel, then wheel marks erased by use of a stone wheel. It must be done accurately, evenly, and symmetrically. Cuts do not run past the point of intersection. Buttons (hobs) are uniform in size and shape. On rayed bases, rays should be equal in length and meet precisely at the center. Cuts on the finest pieces often have a silvery sheen.
Surface Polishing- Fine hand-polishing on a wooden wheel, perhaps followed by a brush for fine cuts, is generally preferred over acid polishing, although some of the latter was skillfully done.
Acid-polishing was introduced in the 1890s to eliminate the grey wheel marks more quickly. A mixture of sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids was held in tanks. A piece was dipped into the tank, the immersion timed on a stopwatch. Water was used to stop action of the acids. Finally the piece was polished on a felt wheel and washed.
If done well, this method was a great boon for those who cut intricate patterns. Polishing by means of the wooden wheel may have taken six hours; acid-polishing could be done in five minutes, saving hours of labor expense.
If left in the acid bath too long, edges could lose sharpness, or a pebbly or grainy finish could result. Use the fingers to detect the differences. Wood polishing leaves a highly smooth finish.
Weight and “Ring”- Cut glass is heavy for its size and thickness due to high content of lead, 30-50 percent. (Some counterfeit ware is also heavy.) If shaped like a bowl, the piece rings when tapped gently by fingernail or pencil. If it does not ring, there may be a crack along a miter cut, or it may be imitation cut glass, similar motifs pressed into soda-lime glass. Much of this ware was produced for those who could not afford genuine pieces. These are light in weight. They were called “the poor man’s cut glass.” Some Middle Period pressed glass with high lead content will ring. I have such a compote made in the 1840s.
Condition- Of course if one intends to buy a piece, careful inspection is needed to determine condition. Our purpose here is to tell Period glass from new.
Most pieces have been used, but not always. A wedding present may have been put away, so is in mint condition. Those that were used show random scratches on the bottom (or on the inside bottom of a bowl if a frog was used for flowers). If the fine scratches are parallel, this suggests that someone made them deliberately (by means of a piece of brick?) to simulate age.
Another sign of use is roughness on the inner edge of a punch or salad bowl where the ladle handle rubbed the glass.
Signature- A signature was a logo adic-stamped on the glass to identify the maker. Many pieces were not signed, although Libbey and Hawkes advertised that every article wa signed from the early 1890s. Carol Weir, past-president and a dealer for many years, has found only 10 percent of pieces are signed; 15 percent have identified patterns, and 75 percent are of unknown origin. (Note: These percentages have changed with the discovery or additional cut glass catalogs and reference materials since this article was published in 1993.) Finding an authentic signature is exciting, but it does not guarantee excellence.
Signatures have been forged. I have seen three obvious fakes: Tuthill, Fry and Sinclaire.
Patterns or Designs- A design is composed of motifs, such as hobstars or fans. Early in the period, c. 1876-1885, American glass was still similar to that of England and Ireland- often cut in one or two motifs all over the piece, such as “Russian” or “Strawberry Diamond and Fan.”
From 1885 to 1905, cutting was complex and dramatic. We were developing our own style.
After 1905, transitional patterns- often geometric and floral combinations- appeared. Of course many of the old designs were still used.
On toward 1920, quality declined. Due to scarcity of ingredients during World War I, and to a change in taste from the pre-war luxurious lifestyle to a more sober, simplified reality, glassware was thinner and designs less ornate.
Modern Reproductions- During the past twenty-five years, as a growing appreciation of the superiority of American Brilliant Period glass has led to collecting these artistic treasures, prices have risen greatly. As pieces are broken or placed in museums, remaining articles become more precious. High values have led unscrupulous individuals to produce counterfeit glassware. Even new furniture is being misrepresented as antique. New Carnival glass is often passed off as old.
Two New Jersey-based businesses pleaded guilty to dealing in counterfeit Waterford crystal (July 1992) in the U.S. District Court in Newark. They imported French-made crystal, etching WATERFORD on the glass. They faced possibly five years in a federal prison and fines of $250,000.
Auction houses and shops are being investigated. It is against the law to co-mingle new items with antiques without identifying the reproductions as new. Auction catalogs may not discriminate or may be in error; dealers in stores may not know what they have, or may deceive customers deliberately.
Authenticating Brilliant Cut Glass- The American Cut Glass Association, a national organization of collectors, is working diligently to expose intentional frauds. It publishes a monthly newsletter: The Hobstar. An authenticity committee checks pieces for sale at the annual convention. Doubtful pieces are removed.
At the 1989 convention in New Orleans, Max Redden, Authenticity Chairman, spoke about new fake pieces sold in the last ten years. Since then he has compiled a list of forty know patterns sold to collectors – all of them highly prized and expensive to buy when authentic. I find it incredible that the culprits would dare to reproduce such well-known designs.
Characteristics of Modern Reproductions- We used to believe that American Brilliant Period glass was immune from reproduction. Our committee is still trying to find the origin of cleverly done fakes. We do know that modern technology, by means of diamond-tipped cutting wheels and perhaps computer-controlled robotics, can imitate the extremely skilled work of the old hand craftsmen well enough to fool many. Two ACGA members have bought counterfeit lamps and sent photographs to The Hobstar as a warning (Dec. 1991 and Mar. 1992). The first stopped payment on his check; the second received a refund from the reputable dealer, who lost money on the deal. This lamp was signed on both globe and base with a smeared and milky signature. Expert Jane Shadel Spillman of Corning, NY, said it was not heavy enough for Hawkes, and that Hawkes rarely signed his lamps on the base.
Small grooves in the miter cuts are made by diamond wheel cutting. Also, most new pieces are acid-polished and there may be mistakes in the cutting.
New and recent European imports may be thick and truly cut, but cuttings are generally sparse. Some are not really blown and cut. These are pressed or blown into molds to form the larger miter indentations, with a few curved miters left grey around a molded buzz and a grey zigzag star in the pinwheel center.
Imported baskets have the handle rising out of the sides, an integral part of the piece. During the Brilliant Period, very few baskets were made this way. Nearly all had separate handles attached to the sides.
The most promising test for detecting counterfeit ware is use of a long-wave, 15 watt Blacklight-Blue Fluorescent Bulb in a dark room. Due to addition of manganese in old glass ingredients to neutralize iron (found in the sand), which caused a greenish cast to the blank, the glass fluoresces a soft yellow-green color, while modern glass glows pink or slightly purple. Many of our collectors relied on this device until exceptions to the rule were discovered and became subject of disagreement.
Now we seem to have the definitive answer to fluorescence through use of more sophisticated equipment by Dr. Martin Folb, a research physicist who heads his own multi-divisional company (Martin A. Folb Industries). The technology division (Duotronic Systems) develops laser and other electro-optical systems, as well as photo-optical instrumentation. A fluorescence test was developed to analyze clear, American Brilliant Period Glass.
Four colors of fluorescence have been observed with Early American cut glass: yellow-green (usually found in the oldest pieces of Brilliant, indicating the presence of manganese and possibly some traces of uranium salts); a blue-green (primarily manganese); a steel blue-grey (also manganese), sometimes referred to as blue-ice; finally pink (or pinkish-blue, indicative of sodium used in reproduction items).
Dr. Folb states that there is no such thing as purple fluorescence. This is the reflection of residual blue and red visible light which is not being filtered out by the inexpensive filters built into the Blacklight-Blue lamp.
He uses a long wave UV source that has filters which eliminate nearly all of the visible purple light. This light source is a Seiss Ultraviolet Illuminator used with a fluorescent microscope. It uses an HBO 200 watt High Pressure Mercury Arc, producing ten times the amount of UV present with the BLB lamp. Subtle differences masked by the BLB lamp can be clearly seen. Some reproductions show no fluorescence. If the piece just barely fluoresces a pink color, it is surely not old. The old glass contains ten times the amount of manganese present in trace amounts in modern glass.
All analyses by the Zeiss UV source were conclusive; in at least 80 percent of examples, the standard BLB lamp was accurate. Remember that fluorescence is caused by impurities and doping materials. Also, note that new tops are being cut for lamps and new stoppers for old bottles. Parts should fluoresce the same.
Back to David and his vase! At the next auction I went to view the glassware. They had a few genuine American Brilliant pieces, which they generally recognize after buying my book. For many years the house has sold imported cut glass (from Poland and Germany), labeled “cut and engraved crystal” even though there was no engraving. Now they sell new imports like David’s vase.
The first piece with the tiny sharp points was labeled “fine cut glass” in the catalog. It was a 13″ bowl, 5″ deep, in “Russian.” The glass was too thin and lightweight to be American. Whereas some of our old pieces feel sharp, these pieces are extremely sharp.
I obtained a catalog of the company dispensing this ware. It is located in Colorado Springs. The Yasmin Cut Glass Factory is located on the Russian Border, Black Sea Shores, Turkey. This family-owned factory uses mouth-blown blanks and specially hardened glass which requires use of diamond wheels of two separate grades for cutting. They even stat training children as early as ten years old during summer, to become master cutters at age twenty.
The catalog states: “Old American Cut Glass is back! All old patterns of the 1900s have been carefully studied from old books and other sources. Yasmin cut glass is determined to bring back the artful beauty of the Brilliant Period.” I called Colorado to see if I could learn more. The woman who answered said that in addition to copied American designs, some are Russian in origin.
The catalog stated that 20 percent of the patterns are in “Russian.” Special prices are offered to wholesalers who order more than 500 pieces. For example a 25″ tall lamp sells for $390; 500 lamps would cost $340 each.
Apparently Yasmin’s is an openly admitted attempt to recreate old American Brilliant Period glassware, but not a very successful one.
Although we have several tests to prove authenticity, nothing takes the place of careful observation and touching. Examine new ware in stores. Go to auctions; compare pieces and prices. Genuine Brilliant Period pieces generally sell for much more than new imported ware.
Knowledge is essential to avoid mistakes and to acquire heirloom pieces from our historical past.