The Czech Republic is most famous for being a world-famous tourist destination, known for its many historical landmarks, monuments and breathtaking landscapes. The popularity of the place often shadows the fact that it is also popular for the much accredited Bohemian crystals.
The Bohemian crystal is a very special type of glass that is used to manufacture glassware, chandeliers, showpieces, beads for jewellery and so much more. Bohemian crystals are clearer than glass and they are so lustrous that they are even compared to diamonds.
Since the Middle Ages, Bohemia has been the epicentre of manufacturing top quality glass. Products manufactured using this material were and still are used by royals, leaders, celebrities and even the average person.
This post explores the history of Bohemian crystals, how they’re produced and what makes them different to other types of crystals or glass. We will also look at the way Bohemian crystals are used by different people around the world, and finally, discuss their future.
The word Bohemian has many meanings. One of them describes an unconventional person involved in the creative domain and another refers to a person, object or language from Bohemia. This post evidently refers to the latter meaning.
So, before delving into the details of Bohemian crystals, let’s first get an understanding of Bohemia, the place.
Bohemia was a historical region, the majority of which today is located in the Czech Republic. The Kingdom of Bohemia was a part of the Holy Roman Empire from the 12thcentury until the kingdom became a part of the Habsburgs’ Austrian Empire in the early 16th century. It was an integral part of the Austrian Empire till the end of World War I when it became the westernmost province in the newly formed Republic of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993, becoming the Czech Republic, and historical Bohemia is now divided between parts of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, with the majority.
The Origins of Bohemian Crystal
The knowledge and process of making Bohemian glass have a vast and rich heritage. Its origins date back to the Middle Ages.
The art of glassmaking dates back to the 13th century. In this era, glass was made in the midst of the Lusatian Mountains in northern Bohemia. It is believed that the Benedictine monks of the Benedictine Order were the first to develop the process of manufacturing glass. They’d produce a type of coloured glass and use it for the monastery windows.
The development of making Bohemian glass is linked to the time when King Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor. During his reign, the production of local glass increased for use in the windows of grand monuments such as Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral.
To develop and further encourage the craft, the king invited a few Venetian glassmakers to Prague from Murano. At the time, the Venetians were experts in glassmaking.
Thereon, large amounts of green-tinted glass, called forest glass, was being produced to make items other than windows. Local glassmakers continued to dedicate a lot of time to developing and improving the manufacturing process.
Thanks to the abundance of the raw materials required to make glass, it was possible to continuously develop the process without many limitations. The thick forests surrounding Bohemia had necessary water sources and an abundance of key materials such as silica and wood.
They soon discovered that combining chalk and potash would create a type of glass that was more stable than the famed Venetian version. This glass was also more durable, clearer and completely colourless.
This unique property made the product famous, first in the local markets and soon after, internationally. Once it was reputed abroad, the glass was further developed to have distinct Bohemian features.
By 1414, the first glass factory in the world was established in a town named Chřibská. The glassmaking sector boomed in the following centuries.
By the early 16th century, there were around 34 glassmaking factories in the region. They had all the resources and means to produce sufficient glass products to meet demands from all around Europe. This was another reason that the Bohemians were the leading glass producers in Europe during the Renaissance.
The production and development of glassmaking were once again encouraged by the 16th century, Emperor Rudolf II. During his reign, he invited gem and glass cutters from Italy to set up gem cutting workshops in Bohemia. From there, in the 17th, a local gem cutter by the name of Caspar Lehmann became the Emperor’s gem cutter. This man was a pioneer in transforming Bohemian crystals into the baroque style Bohemian crystals we know and love even today.
He found a technique to carve Bohemian crystals using a cutting tool with bronze and copper wheels. With his technique, artists could now make precise deep cut engravings and high relief engravings to produce small and intricate designs. This was a breakthrough for Bohemian crystals. By the 17th and 18th centuries, even European royalty and the upper class began demanding Bohemian glass products. Louis XV of France, Elizabeth of Russia, and Maria Theresa of Austria had Bohemian crystal chandeliers hanging in the palaces. Bohemian crystal was now regarded as a luxury product and its demand and popularity had clearly surpassed Venetian glass by the 18th century.
Also during this era, Bohemian glass was renamed Bohemian crystal. As its physical appearance resembled clear and pristine quartz crystal.
Developments in glassmaking never stopped as, in the early modern era, Bohemian glass was now free of lead, yet it was possible to make engravings on the product.
The end of the baroque era marked the beginning of the neoclassical period, which was when the Bohemians mastered the art of glass painting. This period saw the creation of colourful and detailed crystal pieces.
With the Industrial Revolution between the 18th and 19th centuries, Bohemian crystal could now be mass-produced in less than half the amount of time taken to produce it before.
By the latter half of the 19th century, Bohemian crystal was being exported all around the globe. Also, by the mid-19th century, glassmaking institutes were established around Bohemia. These institutes equip students with the skills and knowledge required to master the art of glassmaking. And to transmit glassmaking traditions into the future.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, in the Art Nouveau era, Bohemian glass pieces saw extensive use of enamelling and improved engraving techniques that produced opaque coloured pieces.
The 20th century was rough as the region witnessed two World Wars followed by a communist regime until 1989. Production of supreme, glassware, decanters, vases, chandeliers, candlesticks and other decorative glass pieces continued.
In the present day, Bohemian crystals are seen as affordable luxury products. They are affordable enough for most people to purchase but just luxurious enough for celebrities to endorse. The crystals have a vast range in terms of quality and form, so there is something for everyone.
They make for remarkable gift items, souvenirs and display items. Especially on the shelves of crystal shops in Prague, at which tourists gawk in awe.
The development of glass pieces continues as artists and designers are now experimenting with creating contemporary pieces using the material. And as always, the production of Bohemian crystal continues even 800 years later.
Difference between Crystal and Glass
We now have a brief idea of the history of Bohemian glass. We know how it evolved from tinted glass from the monasteries amidst the forests of northern Bohemia to the modern-day crystal clear glass pieces.
But we still don’t know how it is different from normal glass. What differentiates crystal or Bohemian glass from any other type of glass is the presence of lead. The higher the content of lead, the heavier and malleable it is. It also has a higher refractive index of light which results in a more lustrous and clearer surface.
Making Bohemian Crystal
Previously, wood ash was used to produce Bohemian crystals. Today, glassmakers use purified potash and silica sand.
Bohemian crystals usually contain around 24% of lead oxide. This lead isn’t necessarily added on purpose. They’re usually the remnants of sand or quartz added in the process. Some manufacturers, however, do add lead oxide.
Glassmakers ensure impurities are minimal as they may tint the glass.
Here’s how Crystal Bohemia, one of the largest and prominent Bohemian crystal manufacturers in the Czech Republic make their glass:
First, all the materials; potash, sodium carbonate, lead oxide, saltpetre and refining agents are measured proportionately and weighed precisely. The materials are mixed thoroughly with sand then melted in a furnace at the temperature of 1440 °C. From there, glass blowers take a scoop of the molten glass from the furnace, shape it, then blow it. Alternatively, molten glass is poured into steel moulds to form into shapes. Once the item cools, it is annealed to strengthen the glass and ensure it isn’t too brittle. Then the unnecessary parts that remain from shaping are removed using grinding wheels or diamonds. These parts are then heated again to smoothen them out. If the item needs to be polished, it is done by applying strong acids and polishing tools.
The result is a smooth, clear, detailed, piece of glass that is extremely shiny.
Bohemian Crystals in Culture
As mentioned earlier, Bohemian crystals were once very popular with European royals. They later found their way into many public buildings around the world and into the homes of many celebrities. For example, the works of Czech designer and architect Bořek Šípek use this type of glass. His works are owned by Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, his Royal Highness King Harald V of Norway, Japan’s Princess Sayako and her Highness Princess Caroline of Monaco. They are even part of Bob Dylan’s and Mick Jagger’s collection.
The discussion on Bohemian crystals is incomplete without the mention of Moser. Moser is a luxury brand of Bohemian glass that was founded in 1875 by an engraver named Ludwig Moser, in the town of Karlovy Vary. Moser produces exquisite glass pieces without using lead. The absence of lead makes the glass pieces harder and more difficult to engrave. On top of that, the glassmaker has very little time to shape and blow the item once it’s out of the furnace. But lead-free glass seemingly makes the purest form of glass and shines the best compared to any other kind of Bohemian glass.
Moser glass products have been a part of royal weddings in Spain and Denmark; they’ve been a part of the Diamond wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; they have been presented to special guests who’ve visited the Czech Republic, and Moser works are also housed in many public buildings in the Czech Republic. Naturally, Moser’s designs have won several design awards over the years.
The Future of Bohemian Crystals
Bohemian crystals are a symbol of cultural heritage and identity for the Czechs. The product has a long history that recognizes craftsmanship, appreciates its producers, designers, academics in the field and merchants who helped disseminate Bohemian glass around the world.
Throughout its history, Bohemian crystals have proved to be versatile, adaptable and mutable, which were some of the qualities that permitted its survival even though the Czech Republic’s rough past. This is also what keeps it alive and authentic today, despite the many attempts at imitating the products for a lower price, by other countries.
This art of glassmaking was and continues to be kept alive by passing on knowledge and traditions not only within families but also through the many glassmaking schools set up since the 19th century. These places not only teach both the old methods but develop, create and innovate existing products. These schools also act as places where valuable and traditional knowledge is transmitted.
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Fallan, K. & Lees-Maffei, G., 2016. Designing Worlds: National Design Histories in an Age of Globalization. 1 ed. New York: Berghahn Books.
Lukáš, V., 1981. THE EXPORTATION OF BOHEMIAN GLASS A HISTORICAL REVIEW. Journal of Glass Studies, 23(1), pp. 56-63.
Pánová, K., Rohanová, D. & Randáková, S., 2020. Modelling of Bohemian and Moravian glass recipes from Gothic to Baroque periods. Heritage Science, 8(117), pp. 1-12.