A Song of Glass and Fire: A History
I don’t know about you, but history fascinates me. There are things we use everyday that have unique, interesting backgrounds and storied origins. Some even have controversial beginnings, like the War of the Currents between Tesla and Edison, or the invention of the intermittent wiper-blade (I know that sounds boring but it’s worth reading about, Ford and Chrysler combined had to pay over $40 million to this inventor for basically stealing his idea.) Naturally, I began to wonder where the spoons and pipes we all know and love started. As much as I love to picture Ancient Greeks passing around a Zeus-shaped bong complete with a lightning-shaped arm/bowl, I’d have to assume that most glassworks came from more humble beginnings.
Glasswork is documented to have begun as early as 1500 BC in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). They used obsidian to make tools for hunting and basic needs, though that form of glass occurs naturally due to activity from volcanoes and isn’t the same as the glass we see through more modernized means of production these day. Though this is some of the earliest work with glass we see, glass beads dating all the way back to 4000 BC have been discovered.
As civilization became more advanced major developments in the craftsmanship and creation process of glass took place, including the practice of glassblowing evolving in Rome around 30 BC. Glassblowing is the process of shaping warm glass with a blowpipe. This technique is still widely used today. Glass pipes weren’t documented until around the late 18th century, and were considered a luxury item whereas modern consumers have all probably dropped and shattered at least one without fear of being able to acquire another as soon as they’d desire.
There are multitudes of chemical compositions that comprise what we know as glass, though most modern glass pipes we use are made of either borosilicate or soda-lime glass. Both of these are thermally-resilient forms, i.e. ones you can continuously heat up without worry of warping or destruction.
Glass is favored as a material for smoking instruments because it does not contribute to the taste of the blend, as opposed to wood or clay. It is also able to withstand high temperatures as it was made at high temperatures. Glass pieces can be produced entirely by hand or constructed on lathes, which is useful for larger, more complex pieces.
Ever wondered how your plain glass piece gets fantastic colors in it throughout use? This is due to a process called “fuming” which is accomplished by heating up silver and/or gold and infusing the fumes within the glass itself, giving it a slightly opaque appearance that will become more and more accented through use. Gold will produce the orange, green, and pink colors you see whereas silver gives way to the ever popular blues and purples. Though these colors may disappear slightly or all together during cleaning, rest assured they will reappear as soon as there is tar to reinvigorate them.
Whether mass produced or not, in its own way every piece is an individual work of art. When you see a really mesmerizing creation, just imagine the amount of work and precision that went into it. Glassblowers are truly practicing an ancient craft, and one with results that can be enjoyed by all.