A few weeks ago I’d had one of those rare but special mudlarking sessions when the finds keep coming and you return home from the Thames Foreshore with a bag of interesting items (in mudlarking circles we refer to these as ‘keepers’) to research, treasure and add to your collection.
There wasn’t a particularly good low tide that day, indeed there’d been non-stop rain and the greyest of grey skies, and I’d got drenched on the river the day before. This particular morning there weren’t too many mudlarks about, I’d got there early and initially had quite a bit of the foreshore to myself. The Thames Clippers were beginning to roar into action – it’s so good to see them busy again after such a long period of inactivity – ploughing up and down the river with their passengers.
And as happens now and then, if you’re very lucky, the wash from a passing Thames Clipper just happened to drop a brightly coloured bead at my feet as I was pottering about looking for finds. As also happens on these occasions, the waves then drag the item out again so you have to have quick reflexes and act fast to stop the find being snatched from under your nose.
There then occurred a clumsy few minutes which saw me desperately floundering about on the tide line trying to scoop up handfuls of water in an urgent attempt to find whatever it was that had just flashed before my eyes.
Then the tide finally receded, I looked down, and this is what I saw.
Some finds are so well camouflaged on the Thames Foreshore that they can be very difficult to spot but there was no mistaking this. A stunning apple green, pink, gold and rose glass bead. I knew this had some age to it but I’m not a bead expert and wasn’t sure of its exact provenance.
It wasn’t long before the online mudlarking community helped with the identification of the bead (thank you @mudika.thames and @flo_finds – please follow them both on Instagram) and I quickly learnt it was known as a Venetian ‘fiorato’ (meaning ‘flowered’), also known as a ‘wedding cake’ bead. This one was likely to be from the late 19th century or early 20th century and I fell in love with the sheer lavish gorgeousness of it.
The Venetian glass industry moved from the mainland to the island of Murano in the 13th century. There were thought to be three main reasons for this relocation. Firstly, a practical one. The furnaces and foundries posed an ever-present danger of fire in a city where many buildings were either timber-framed or completely made of wood, so it made sense to remove the glass makers to an island away from residential areas. Secondly, restricting the glass industry to a small island allowed the Venetian authorities to ensure the glassmakers and glassblowers kept the secrets of their trade and there was less likelihood of industrial sabotage.
It has long been believed that any Murano glassmaker or glassblower who left the island with his secrets would be put to death. While this is not entirely correct it was certainly the case for a few hundred years during the Middle Ages and up to the beginning of the 16th century.
The third reason why the Venetian Republic relocated the glass industry to Murano was related to suspicions held by many people at this time that it was connected to witchcraft. Glassblowers and glassmakers were essentially alchemists – alchemy a magical process of transformation, creation and combination, essentially the medieval forerunner to modern chemistry. Glassmaking involved the smelting of metals, use of mysterious powdered substances and the manufacture of beautiful, fragile objects in dazzling colours that looked as if they’d been plucked from the very core of the earth. It was easy to see how and why the unsophisticated mind viewed these processes with a degree of deep suspicion and fear. Yet the Murano glassmakers gloried in their role as the alchemists and craftsmen of the highest order, and their work was considered an unrivalled treasure in the Venetian Republic.
By the 14th century glassmakers had become prominent citizens, were allowed to wear swords (which signalled a step towards gentrification), enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the Venetian State and their daughters married into the most prominent Venetian families. The 16th and 17th centuries were viewed as the heyday of the Murano glassmaking industry but by the mid 19th century it was in decline after five hundred years of dominance.
Venetian glass beads remain popular around the world and vintage ones are highly sought. They can be divided into the following types:
- avventurina – glass containing glittering particles of copper or gold
- smalto – enamelled glass
- millefiori – multi-coloured
- lattimo – milk or semi-opaque glass, also known as opalino. Created by adding lead, lime or tin to the glass composition
The fiorato, or flowered bead, was a popular design thought first to have originated in the 16th century when avventurine glass was developed by accident, although the first commercial bead of this type wasn’t made until the early 1800s. The process of making these beads begins on a copper wire which forms the hole when finished, hot coloured glass then wound around it. This centuries old process is known as ‘perle a lume’, ‘lampwork’ or ‘lampwound’. Indeed, glassmakers are also known as lampworkers.
For fiorato beads, the bead itself is decorated in glittery squiggles and rosebuds or sometimes forget-me-nots. The glitter is made by the ‘avventurina’ or ‘aventurine’ process (not to be confused with the aventurine stone, which is a type of quartz) but instead the original meaning has its roots in the Italian phrase ‘a ventura’, which means ‘by chance’, a phrase perfectly describing its accidental discovery in a Murano workshop in the early 1600s.
Glass infused with copper fillings glitters and catches the eye while the more glinting and gleaming loops there are on the bead is an indicator of age; the older the bead, the more glittery squiggles you’ll see on it. After the strands of glass are trailed in loops or zigzags around the bead, the floral details are applied.
The Venetian glassmaking industry has an ancient history and is iconic but it’s important to remember that the first man-made glass actually predates Venetian glass by many millennia. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first man-made glass was made in Egypt and Mesopotamia (the region of modern day Iraq) in 3500 BC, the first excavated glass vessels dating from 1500BC.
It’s well worth visiting the island of Murano if you get the chance although the Venetian glass industry is no longer what it once was. On my last trip here in 2013 I was treated to a beautiful Venetian glass necklace. The shops and boutiques were full of glass items – jewellery, vases, crystal chandeliers – not all of which were particularly nice and definitely not to everyone’s taste.
And then, reader, I lost it.
I lost my beautiful Venetian fiorato bead.
When I’m out mudlarking I often get stopped by people walking along the Thames Foreshore who want to know if I’ve found anything ‘nice’ that day. I always stop and chat but on this occasion I was in a hurry to get home. After I’d shown my finds that day, including the Venetian bead, I put everything back in a small container, shoved it quickly into my rucksack (or so I thought) and headed back to the station.
It was only when I got home that I realised the finds container was missing from my rucksack because I hadn’t zipped the bag up properly after putting the container away. It must have fallen out somewhere between that spot on the foreshore where I’d stopped to chat, and a bench on the Southbank near the National Theatre where I’d sat down to change my boots.
I even returned to that very spot the next day to see if by some miracle it was still there but it wasn’t. When this kind of thing happens to you it’s important to keep things in perspective. There are terrible things happening in the world right now so the loss of a bead is hardly a matter of life or death, but I was cross with myself for a long time for not being careful enough.
A lesson learnt the hard way.
C’est la vie.
But mudlarking is a strange old thing. The river gives, takes away and gives something back to you again when you least expect it.
When I’d gone back to the Thames Foreshore the next day to try to find my Murano bead I was just heading home again when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something red being washed in by the waves.
It was another bead.
Not a Venetian one, but a beautiful, pressed Czech bead with a flower motif on both sides.
Between the 12th to 14th centuries, German glassmakers had been invited to settle in the area of the Austro-Hungarian empire known as Bohemia – now the westernmost and largest historical area of the present-day Czech Republic. This region was blessed with unlimited sand, water (which provided power) and wood from the forests (used to heat the furnaces) – all the elements needed for glass production. There was also an abundance of cheap labour and good quality quartz in the mountains which, when ground down, produced silica, the core of glass production.
Glass factories here had been making glass beads for rosaries since the medieval period, plus stained glass for mosaics and windows in local churches, abbeys and monasteries. They also made buttons, beads, vases and chandeliers. German and Czech speaking Bohemians worked together in this industry.
By the mid 16th century, glass had become a major Bohemian cottage industry mainly around the towns of Jablonec (also known as Gablonz), Stanovsko and Bedrichov. Today there is a Museum of Glass and Costume Jewellery in Jablonec. Beaded costume jewellery was becoming extremely fashionable and, by the 18th century, serious bead production was increasing rapidly due to the explosion of factories and industrialisation.
Improved pressing methods and other new processes helped, such as the patenting of machines that could press beads and buttons at a fast rate. This meant that millions of beads could be manufactured and exported every year. Tools helped draw the heated glass and squeeze it into shape with the help of a tong that included a mold at the end. This resulted in what became known as ‘press-molded’ or ‘pressed’ beads, such as the red beauty I found on the Thames Foreshore.
The First World War (1914-1918) severely impacted the Bohemian bead making industry after which the nation of Czechoslovakia was created, Bohemia now absorbed into it. The global depression of the 1920s and 1930s badly affected industry and the economy. However, the bead industry benefited hugely from the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb which led to what was known as ‘Egyptian revival’, a fashion that manifested itself in Egyptian-themed jewellery design in the 1920s and 1930s and which resulted in an entire new craze.
During the Second World War, the glass industry suffered again due to the making of ammunition and weapons taking precedence over anything else, and so the production of glass beads and other decorative items was stopped. After 1945 and the imposition of Communism in Eastern Europe, all Czech glassworks were nationalised and fell into decline until the late 1950s when there was a revival, and beads and costume jewellery became fashionable again.
After the Velvet Revolution of 1989 saw the end of communism, Czechoslovakia separated into two distinct nations – the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The famous name of Swarovski, long associated with sparkling beads and now based in Austria, also originated in Czechoslovakia.
If you’d like to read more about the history of Bohemian Beads, I highly recommend ‘Baubles, Buttons and Beads’ by Sibylle Jargstorf. Beautifully illustrated, it focuses on the production of jewellery and other glass trinkets in the town of Gablonz and its outskirts, once a mark of quality among the makers of costume jewellery.
Last, but by no means least, no history of Czech glass bead making is complete without mentioning the Neiger brothers, Norbert and Max. If I hadn’t lost my Venetian bead and found my Czech pressed bead instead, I’d never have heard of the Neiger Brothers. I’m grateful that researching the history of Czech beads opened a door to their story.
Neiger Brothers’ jewellery was characterised by beautiful glass beads and detailed metal bead caps. Heavily influenced by Art Deco designs and also Egyptian Revival jewellery, as already mentioned, which became all the rage thanks to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter and Lord Caernarvon. The wealthy and fashionable couldn’t get enough of Egyptian-themed jewellery.
Norbert, the older brother, had graduated from the Gablonz technical school in jewellery design in the early 20th century, and the brothers later started their jewellery making business in the basement of their home. Eventually Norbert ended up running the business while Max (known as Moritz Max in official documents) was in charge of the workshop and designed the jewellery. The Neiger brothers also made scent bottles with stamped filigree and decorated with semi-precious or imitation stones. (Gablonz had been the centre of the Bohemian bead making jewellery business for centuries.)
Their jewellery quickly became hugely in demand with a clientele stretching from Paris to the USA. They became swamped with orders and so, in 1926, they transferred the business to bigger premises in Berbigstrasse, took on dozens of employees and distributed other aspects of bead making production to numerous cottage workers.
The brothers would show their collections to buyers who adored their gilded and chromium plated finishes, while other examples of their jewellery were composed of small enamelled elements impressed or stamped with patterns, often floral and set in glass stones.
Sometimes the Neigers copied designs brought to them from wealthy clients in Paris.
Neiger designs today are highly sought after and often copied, the Neiger family not able to easily seek legal redress in order to stop the copying. The brothers didn’t stamp their own jewellery with the Neiger name because they tended to buy many of the metal parts they used ready-made from estamperies like Scheibler. This is one of the reasons why today it can be difficult to identify a Neiger piece with a hundred per cent certainty, the descendants of the family are understandably fierce custodians of the Neiger reputation and have the final say in authenticating any newly found pieces of Neiger Brothers jewellery.
The Neigers lived with and to some extent tolerated competition. They did, however, take action against a former employee who started his own workshop in the 1920s and tried to sell Neiger imitations.
The Neigers were viewed as excellent employers at a time when not everyone who ran a business was quite so supportive of their employees as they were. They managed a total of 34 people, 16 of whom were gurtlers (a gurtler was a professional metalsmith working with non precious metals, silver and silver gilt.)
When I was researching the Neiger brothers, the moment I read that they were from a Jewish family, I instinctively dreaded how their story would end.
In 1938 Gablonz was taken over by the German Reich and the family escaped to the Czech part of Bohemia from the Polish part, where they continued to work. They were arrested in Prague and taken to the Łódź Ghetto after which they were then taken to Auschwitz concentration camp.
Deportation records from this period show Max Neiger and his wife Anna were murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, while their daughter Zuzana, Max’s brother Norbert plus Norbert’s wife Margareta, were also thought to have been murdered in 1942 although their death dates are not recorded anywhere.
The Neigers were brilliant artisans and excellent employers. They created beautiful things and brought joy through their designs. Their legacy endures through their beads and it’s some consolation that the loss of one Thames-found bead, and the discovery of another, led me to their story and life which I can celebrate in this blog.