Lampworking is a kind of hot glasswork where a torch is used to melt glass. Once the glass is molten, the worker forms it by blowing or shaping it with tools and movements.
Lampwork is used to create glass beads, figurines, marbles, vessels, ornaments and so on. It’s even used to craft scientific instruments and glass models for botany and zoology.
Although lack of a precise definition for lampworking makes it difficult to determine when this technique was first developed, the earliest verifiable lampworked glass is probably a collection of beads thought to date to the fifth century BC.
Lampworking as we know it today was born with the Italian Renaissance. Angelo Barovier, working on Murano (a small island near Venice Italy), created, “cristallo” — a clear soda glass — in 1450. As chemical science developed there arose a concurrent need for clear, durable vessels to contain, mix, and measure components. No material was better suited for the task than this new clear glass. With the development of this new glass came the need for a better way of creating small objects than the use of a full scale furnace. Early lampworking was done in the flame of an oil lamp, with the artist blowing air into the flame through a pipe. Since blowing into a pipe caused hyperventilation, workers began to use bellows which would produce a constant stream of air. This was the first “torch”.
The versatility of this new technology was quickly apparent and gave the lampworker several important advantages over the glassblower. One of which was that the energy demands of lampworking were just a tiny fraction of those of glassblowing. Lampworking was much more economical and lampworked creations could be afforded by common people.
By the beginning of the 18th century localized industries devoted to making small items for public consumption had sprung up all over Europe. The town of Nevers, France, was noted for tiny figurines of people and farm animals which were so popular that their production continued until the beginning of this century. The village of Lauscha, Germany, was entirely employed in the making of Christmas ornaments at the lamp. Venice itself employed lampworking techniques in making beads and millefiori, tiny murrines that looked like flowers.
Is lampwork like glassblowing? Not really. In glassblowing the glass is kept molten in a furnace, like a giant crockpot of glass (at 1150 degrees C). The glassblower dips into this as needed to shape the glass. But both types of glass work share tools and methods.
Today it’s also known as flameworking or torchworking because oil-lamps are obsolete – like commuting by gondola. Most artists use torches fuelled by propane or natural gas.
At Sailorgirl Headquarters, I use my ‘lamp’ to create the colourful cornerstones of my jewelry – my whimsical shiny happy glass beads. And I am mighty happy that I am not pumping bellows to create them!