Posts Tagged ‘Murano Glass Beads’

Napoleon’s Role in the Decline of Millefiori Bead Production

05 Aug

Venice was the powerhouse of European glass bead production in the 19th Century. Unsurprising then that it’s strong trade links and booming economy made it an attractive potential acquisition for the power hungry Napoleon Bonaparte. Sadly, it was an acquisition that would have a devastating impact upon the glass-making guilds of Murano, and the future of Millefiori Bead production in Venice.

It all began in 1797 when, seeking to increase his dominance over Europe, the First Consul of the French First Republic sailed into the Venice Lagoon with his army, and effectively forced the city to surrender. Unprepared for invasion, the city was forced to comply, and eventually agreed to a new democratic government run by the French.

A peace treaty between Austria and France in the early 1800s saw the brief transfer of Venice to Austrian rule. However, they were beaten by the French at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, and Napoleon once again took control. Venetian bead production continued in earnest in Murano until 1814 when, following his defeat at the Battle of Leipzieg by the Sixth Coalition, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, Tuscany.

Venice once again fell under the control of the Austrians who, intent on making Bohemia the center of European bead production, imposed hefty taxes on imported materials to Murano, and all exports leaving the city. The rising costs of production led to the closure of more than half of the 24 glass-making factories in Murano by 1820, and eventually, there were a mere five furnaces operating on the island.

A small, yet dedicated group of artisans continued to produce Millefiori Beads in Murano, however, it would be another 34 years before the fortunes of the island really began to improve. Six siblings, known locally as the “Toso brothers”, formed the Fratelli Toso company in 1854. They started out manufacturing commercial products such as window panes and vases, however, eventually began to diversify into other glass products – including beads! By 1869, the former epicenter of glass production had overtaken Bohemia to once again become bead-making capital of Europe.


The Invention of the Copper Mandrel, and How it Changed Millefiori Bead Production

05 Jul

1920s Millefiori Beads from Murano, Venice. Evelyn S./

It’s hard to believe there are many revolutionary inventions that have altered traditional glass bead production. After all, what more do you need other than a furnace, some bits of glass and a metal rod? Believe it or not, it was the discovery of a new type of rod (mandrel) that transformed Venetian Millefiori Beads from the 1920s onwards. Prior to the discovery, Venetian Trade Beads had been traditionally manufactured using a metal mandrel coated in a white paste (known as a “bead release”) – usually clay or borum nitride. This is evident in nearly all Millefiori Beads produced in the 19th Century, which have a distinctive, powdery white residue in and around the perforation hole.

Father and son glass-making firm Moretti were one of the powerhouses of Venice during the 19th Century. It is they whom are credited with reviving the ancient Roman technique of mosaic glass-making in Italy, and who also discovered that copper was a cost-reducing, efficient alternative to iron and steel for mandrels. At the time, it was considered a landmark discovery, because it required no prior preparation (unlike borum nitride and clay) and it could be found in quantitative supply throughout Europe.

Environmental laws have had a considerable impact on the glass-making industry. Back in the 1920s, there were no regulations in place governing the use of corrosive acids in industrial production, so glass-makers could use Nitric Acid to dissolve the copper within beads after firing. While the toxicity of the fumes cannot be disputed, there was no evidence at the time to suggest such fumes were responsible for terminal illness – so glass-makers were none the wiser.

Environmental awareness and climate change have forced many industries to revise and refine their production techniques. Glass-makers were forced to invest in expense filtering equipment to reduce the toxicity of fumes being emitted into the air, and copper mandrels soon became far too expensive to use in every day production; eventually being replaced with stainless steel. 


How To Distinguish Venetian Millefiori Beads From Modern Imitations

08 Jun

From the 1500′s until the close of the 19th Century, Venetian glass-working guilds incepted myriad of ways to produce more elaborate mosaic beads for seafaring merchants. Unlike the relatively primitive mold method employed by Rosetta bead-makers up until the 15th Century, the millefiori technique involved construction of beads one rod at a time. The exact positioning of the canes was critical to the end pattern, however, this method allowed for greater symmetry and uniformity than the old Rosetta method. As such, the mosaic patterns of true Venetian Trade Beads will almost always be uniformly symmetrical.

Although India has a long and fascinating tradition of bead-making, they only began to mass produce Indian Millefiori Beads in earnest in the 1980s. These are far darker and more rustic in appearance than their Venetian counterparts owing to the relatively primitive techniques employed to make them. One sure-fire way to spot the difference between Indian and Venetian Millefiori Beads is to look at the perforation hole; Indian bead perforations are often far larger, with sharp, unfinished edges and white residue at the core.

Indonesia too has a long affiliation with bead-making. In fact, many consider the ancient “Jatim” beads produced from 900 A.D to be the earliest form of millefiori. Unfortunately these old Jatim Beads are rare and expensive, and those you find in Indonesia’s markets today will unlikely be the real thing. Indonesian replications are somewhat more difficult to distinguish from Venetian Millefiori Beads because of their excellent finish. You can usually tell them apart by comparing the glass quality and size. Indonesian beads are commonly made with transparent glass, and are usually longer and wider than Venetian originals.