The very nature of Thüringian blown beads led to their worldwide trade and
to their lack of recognition. Most bead people are familiar with lampworked European
beads from Venice and Bohemia; the solidity of these beads contributed to their longevity
and thus to their place in history. Fragile blown beads from the hilly central German state of
Thuringia, however, often had a shorter lifespan.
Glass production in Thüringia has a rich history dating back to the eleventh century.
The furnace to which their beadmaking tradition can be traced was established in the village
of Lauscha in 1597. Organized as a cooperative town furnace, the prerequisites of silica,
potash and fuel were in abundance nearby and the all important approval of the local nobility had been obtained. Originally and over the next one hundred fifty years, utilitarian glassware was produced there. As workers passed their knowledge to their sons, the area found itself with an excess of glassworkers. More furnaces, the offspring of this Lauscha Dorfglashiitte, sprouted to absorb the overflow, but there were months during the year when
the furnaces were dormant, the timber in the mountains was becoming depleted,
and glassworkers sought something they could do at home.
By approximately 1750, roughly one hundred fifty years after the first blown beads
were made in Venice and France, furnaces in and around Lauscha were beginning
to produce glass tubes. Oral tradition states that this tubing as well as a torch suitable for cottage use was introduced to Thuringia by “Habakuk” and “Sixer” Greiner, who
imported it from the Rhein area. This torch employed a bellows system worked under the arm to deliver air to the flame, using vegetable oil as fuel. The stage was
set for beadmaking in Thüringia.
First appearing as simple oval or round black beads that adorned mourning wreaths
on graves, the early blown beads evolved into those coated inside with a
metallic liquid, later with a special fish scale extract (essence d’orient) that mimicked the
luster of pearls, and also mold-blown beads, some of real delicacy. The
early blown beads could not compete on the European market with those mainly coming out of France, however, and were channeled through England and Holland to the African
and American colonies.
By 1762, a silvering technique was introduced that coated the inside of the blown beads with a mixture of lead, tin and zinc held together with a binder to increase adherence. This coating increased their appeal to a wider audience. Wholesalers and international
exporters from nearby Sonneberg, already engaged in selling local crafts, expected that these blown beads could be a lucrative item to add to their line and they
obtained exclusive rights to market them in 1789 (these exclusive rights ended in 1862).
This had the effect of dramatically increasing blown bead production in Thüringia.
The early silvering process required that the solution be kept hot in a spoon, called the “lead
spoon,” over a flame at the glass blowing table. After a bead was blown, the beadmaker
dipped the shorter end of the point into the lead spoon and sucked on the longer
point with his mouth until the bead was filled. A thin layer of this metallic mixture
adhered to the inner wall while the rest would be blown back into the spoon to
be reused. As a protective covering and to increase weight, a wax layer was also
sucked into the bead. Different colors depended on the type
of lacquer applied to the outside of the bead. An adjustment of the metal mix to bismuth and zinc produced a bead with a golden sheen. Clear glass beads without a metallic
finish could be colored by coating the interior with colored wax, although this was
During the next eighty years, these and many other types of blown beads
were exported. Simple monochrome or polychrome beads which were ribbed
and/or mold-blown in different shapes, are all documented on sample cards,
along with fancy freehand blown beads. Mold-blown beads appeared in the early
1800s and the molds used were made of brass, slate or porcelain. Improvements to the glassblower’s tools included the addition of a foot bellows to the torch in 1820 and the adoption of multiple molds from Bohemia in 1850. Now, long lengths of tubes could be molded into many beads and all these beads could be finished (coloured or silvered) at once. Often, the glassblower would have the mirroring done by his wife or children.
(This unhealthy lead mix was replaced with a silver nitrate recipe developed by Gustav Engelhard in 1870.) Mass production was becoming more efficient, keeping up with the demands created by the fashion industry between 1850 and 1860.
Until the 1880s, many of the beads exported for fashion were black, as dictated by Victorian style. Replacing these in popularity from the 1880s until World War I were those known as Fischperlen оr fish silver beads. Using a technique developed by a Frenchman named Jaquin in 1656, beads could be made to look very similar to marine pearls. Guanine crystals were extracted from the scales of the Ukulei fish and mixed with a binder of gelatin and mineral spirits and blown into
the beads using a bulbous-shaped container with a sharp tube.
After drying, the silvered beads were filled with wax using a similar tool, to give them weight and a better shine and opacity (silvering alone would still have left them transparent). For that reason, they are called either wax or fish beads. To produce color in these beads, the fish silver had to be mixed with aniline dyes. A situple earth color mix could give them a matte finish. By this means, necklaces were made to imitate amber, ivory and coral. The beads used for this silvering technique had to be blown one at a time, while both bead holes had to be fire-polished. This was an expensive process and without a change in the structurting of the bead industry its use in the finishing of beads would not have been possible.
As noted earlier, from 1789 until 1862, the merchants of Sonneberg had the rights to all glass beads produced in Thuringia. When their monopoly ran out, businessmen from other fields realized the potential profits possible through taking over the expensive finishing procedures. Unlike the cottage workers, these entrepreneurs had the capital necessary for materials and machines and could afford to hire the labor requited to efficiently carry out these processes.
Finishing and selling these beads became an industry and served to stabilize bead prices. In addition, German colonial trade functioned as a new market, balancing the often fluctuating demands of fashion. By 1902, they were selling to Paris. Germany's status as bead producer
had been elevated by the consistent quality standards set by the finishers. If the finished
products were not made into necklaces, bracelets, brooches or similar jewelry, all beads for sale were strung on thirty-centimeter-long threads; twelve such threads made one hank (Masche). Besides going to France. these beads had a market in the United States, Russia. China, India, England and other European nations. Surprisingly, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Cuba were also large clients by 1894.
Much attention is always given to beads themselves, but not to their makers. These glassworkers from Thuringia hailed back to furnace workers several centuries before. Furnaces usually had twelve workstations, the rights to which were owned by men who
passed them on to their sons. As these workstations were divided to accommodate several sons carrying on their father’s tradition, the time each son could be productive was reduced. Working at the lamp was a welcome solution to the overabundance of glassworkers. In 1789 twenty-one families were working as beadmakers, but proliferated to two hundred fifty by
1888. Even before this time Lauscha was known not so much for its furnaces as for its cottage workers. The worker paid for his raw materials and took the risk that his buyers would accept the finished product. They were instructed by their buyers as to the styles
they were to make and later were relieved of the final finishing processes as these were
taken over by the same buyers. Mainly men were beadmakers, with the women first helping their husbands with silvering the beads. Later, when the finishers had taken over the process of applying the interior silvering and coloring, women and children were the primary workers. From twenty to fifty were generally employed by these finishers. As the number of beadmakers had grown beyond the need, most of these lampworkers were employed as the makers of Christmas tree ornaments and animal figures. A few others switched to making glass eyes, glass marbles and glass marble beads.
It is not surprising that uncounted types of fish silver, and other blown beads made in Lauscha for the last two or three centuries, were a worldwide economic success but remained relatively unnoticed and unidentified in modern bead literature. The long existence of the Iron Curtain is one reason for the scarcity of information. Bead researchers were not allowed to visit reliable sources in the former German Democratic Republic (libraries and the few remaining artists for example) for the last thirty years. Thüringian beads are easy to confuse with those from Gablonz, yet another handicap to identification.
Marble beads remain an unsolved riddle in bead research. Neither collectors and dealers, nor researchers can tell with certainty how and where these beautiful beads were made. Were composite glass rods or composite glass tubes used as their base material?
This question is still open for discussion, with the latter being most likely. The glass centers of Venice, Gablonz, and furnaces in the German province of Bavaria are candidates for possible production.
In the 1840s the families of two old glassmasters of Lauscha pondered new orders, one from science (the department of prosthetic medicine) and the other from the toy trade. Being independent and not knowing about the orders of other glassworkers, Elias and
Septimus Greiner and the family of Ludwig Miiller-Uri both attempted to transform the ideas of their tomers into saleable products. For both parties composite glass rods were at the center of their attempts. They worked in secrecy, by deceiving and camouflaging, to throw their competitors off their tracks. Scientific fame and large profits were at stake. But secrets have a short half-life in small towns, especially in Lauscha, where most made their money from glass and many belonged to related families. The colleagues speculated about the cooperation between the University of Wiirzburg and Miiller-Uri. Professor Dr. Geissler—well known in town as employer for individually blown “laboratory glasses”—had authorized Miiller-Uri to try making human glass eyes.
The clients for human glass eyes were no longer satisfied by the product from France, as the durability of glass was in doubt but the main critical focus was on the unrealistic appearance of the iris. Like many others, Miiller-Uri and his family worked at home, as part of the cottage industry. For some time he was able to keep his attempts a secret. The Greiners were the subject of gossip as well, as these two had gotten an unusual order to copy agate marbles in glass for a customer from Idar-Oberstein, Germany’s capital for
semiprecious stones. The agate mines in his home town were nearly exhausted, resulting in higher prices for agate products. If he could not find a competitive alternative, he would lose his mainly American customers. Glass seemed to be a reasonable substitute so attempts had to be started quickly. Greiner and his son owned one stand in the local furnace so it was
difficult to work in secrecy.
But what do glass eyes have to do with marbles and marble beads? Both parties experimented with composite rods—Miiller-Uri at home on the torch, while the Greiners pulled bigger diameter rods at their stand in the Hütte. According to oral tradition both parties finally worked together to develop quality rods. For the fine lines to to be trailed onto the iris (such latticino rods are similar in color, size and shape to the “twisties” that American beadmakers use to decorate their beads) and for copying colored agate marbles from Idar-Oberstein (in green or red-brown with fine white lines in between) such rods seem to be
perfect. When Johann Greiner, stepfather of Elias, developed the marble scissors in 1848
(a variation of this relatively simple tool used earlier to shape glass eyes for animals and glass buttons), efficient working became possible. The production and trade of marbles
was successful and filled the wallets of the Greiners. In 1848 they received
a concession to produce and sell “artificial agate and semiprecious stone balls.”
The patent of the Royal Bavarian Government in Bayreuth followed a year later in 1849.
To be able to work on their new item in secrecy, the Greiners planned to build their own furnace, but the local competitors protested, as they feared a limitation of their wood
allotment. The Greiners obliged by using only coal to fire the planned new furnace. In 1853 they started with four workstations. Their business with glass rods, tubes and marbles worked so well, that the furnace was enlarged to ten workstations only a few months
later. Marbles in different sizes, colors and designs were produced, while a nearby mill in Unterlauscha did the cutting and polishing. Local competitors did not lag behind; in 1856 two more furnaces started production. Both ignored the Greiner’s patent and produced rods, tubes and, illegally, also marbles. Possible profits were too tempting. When Septimus
Greiner died in 1877, ten different marblemaker units were working in Lauscha. Their sons and grandsons continued the families" furnaces for several decades. Exept for a short period, wheb medicine bottles were produced, primarily tubes, rods and marbles were made.
The production of marbles in Lauscha is well documented. It is no exaggeration to assume, that the little vilage of Lauscha, with approximatelyfifteen hundred to three thousand inhabitants between 1850-1930, was the world’s leading marble maker. During that perio—with the first decade of the twentieth century being the peak period of demand and sales—
millions of handmade pieces in a variety of sizes (numbers 00 to 8) and designs were sold worldwide. Official export statistics confirm that United States, France and England were the best buyers. But also China, India, Russia and the German colonies in Africa (i.e. Togo) also favored these lovely pieces of vitreous art. The Seppen, Mauschel and Kiihnert furnaces were not the only producers since most also sold (marble-) rods and tubes to the local market; it is likely that cottage workers also wanted a piece of the cake and started a line of
marbles and possibly marble beads. Those with a smaller diameter could be made at the torch.
How many marble beads might we find, if all specimens in collections could be counted?
Probably less than one thousand, no more than ten thousand pieces. A single cottage worker would have been able to produce such an amount in two years. This possibly
explains why little is known about these beads and their makers, leaving the whole subject open to speculation. It is a fact that marble beads were made in Lauscha. In a letter to the county government, dated May 15, 1854, Greiner complained that “all sorts elements were allowed to produce marbles” (while his concession was still valid). This letter gives us a hint
that the Greiners were probably the first who produced marble beads. Attached to this letter was a small box with “fine glassware.” The authorities, Greiner claimed, should take a look
at his recent creation of “colored glass CORAL BEADS” (Glaskorallperlen).
Could it be said any clearer—marble beads in other words. Also, that the Greiners wanted
to get their concession expanded to include the production of “composite glass
tubes,” suggests making of marble beads.
Jamey Allen (1999) describes the possible production process of such beads. Most likely, he theorizes, composite glass tubes—and not composite rods—were used to manufacture marble beads. A packing list of the Kithnert-furnace, Dating from the early
twentieth century, answers one of the open questions in bead research. Listed are Lochmärbel or marbles with a hole, packed one hundred to a carton; without a doubt, this
means marble beads. The finding of two marble beads by the author during 1997 in the basement of the old (now closed) Kithnert furnace is further confirmation. Besides a wide range of various items, rods, tubes and blown beads, the Kithnert furnace produced marbles and marble beads. A Kithnert’s flyer showed a variety of possible marble designs.
I was personally told by a local antique dealer that thousands of unfinished marbles were found when the Kithnert furnace was torn down a few months after German unification
in 1990. Quite a quantity of marble beads were found among the marbles and were later sold in the dealer’s shop. By the time of our discussion, all marble beads had been
sold. Marbles and broken marble rods were sold for twenty to two hundred dollars each, depending on condition, size and rarity of design. American collectors were obviously his best customers.
A multi-functional tool, in use in Lauscha, must be mentioned: it could cut off the molten tip of a marble rod, shape it round and pierce a hole through its center in one motion. That marble beads were made by this means can be observed on page 64 of Rudolf Hoffmann’s book Thüringer Glas, which shows composite rods, marbles and one marble bead, probably made from a rod, not a tube, with the forementioned tool. Hoffmann, the curator of the town’s lovely little glass museum for nearly forty years, was one of the author’s reliable informants who confirmed the existence and use of this tool. Marble beads of the traditional kind, with the typical white and yellow latticino designin the center, cannot be made with such an instrument though, as the latticino would undoubtedly be distorted if one tried to use this tool to make marble beads. The marble beads in extant collections were made by a variety of methods: from composit tubes, from rods, and then “hot-pierced” by the forementioned tool, or by drilling marbles.
The trained eye recognizes that marble beads from the African trade (which constitute
the majority of such beads in collections) are not from Lauscha in most cases. Not only
the quality and color of the transparent clear glass but also the intensity, shades, color
combinations and designs are not identical. The beads from the African trade are more intricate, more well made, elaborate and larger than those from Lauscha’s workshops. There
must have been other manufacturers of marble beads than those discussed here, as the
difference between the pieces from Lauscha and those from the African trade shows. Though evidence is not available this production center is most likely Gablonz or workshops located in Bavaria.
Jürgen Buschof Muqadema for "Ornament Magazine" - Winter 2000