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The Origins of glass

Natural glass was probably first discovered by chance around 5000 BC on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Gradually humans began to master the art of glassmaking, initially empirically through techniques such as pâte de verre, blowing (leading to the development of container glass), adding colour, inventing the mirror and flat glass. Over the centuries knowledge was shared among the glassmaking regions, such as the Syro-Palestinian lands, Venice, England, Bohemia and the north and east of France, leading to the complete mastery of very special techniques. At the boundary between science and technology, and art and design, glass continues to be an innovative material which offers humankind a vast range of properties and applications.

Glass has the particularity of being both a solid, of defined shape and volume with a disordered structure of matter, close to that of a liquid.


Glass exists on Earth in natural form, taking names such as obsidian, fulgurite and tektite. Resulting from an erupting volcano, a flash of lightning or a falling meteorite, these natural types of glass are mostly composed of silica or silicon dioxide. This mineral is abundant on the surface of our planet, found in commonplace materials such as sand, granite and quartz. Glass is particular in that it is a solid, with a definite shape and volume, but possesses a disordered atomic structure similar to that of a liquid.


Similar to its natural counterpart, artificial glass is made by heating silica, known as the ‘former’, to a very high temperature; however this is a very expensive process (a minimum working temperature is 1,700 °C) and the resulting glass is very difficult to manipulate. Adding an alkaline ‘flux’, such as sodium carbonate, lowers the fusion temperature to 1,300 °C. The resulting glass is unstable and deteriorates over time. To prevent this, glassmakers add an alkaline-earth metal or ’stabilizer’, such as lime, to the composition. Physical and chemical refining agents are added to give the glass extra transparency and to eliminate air bubbles.


Western artisanal glassmaking relied on supplies of natron from Syria, Palestine and Egypt until the Carolingians succeeded in developing the first glass using fern ash as the flux. Throughout Europe new processes and techniques were being developed, such as broad sheet glass in the east of France and Central Europe; crown glass in the west of France and England; mirrors in Germany; and glass polishing and tinning in the north of France. In the early fourteenth century Italian glassmakers began to rival their Eastern counterparts with the creation of elegant pieces decorated with blue lines. The glassmakers of Murano invented cristallo, a totally clear glass like rock crystal, in the middle of the fifteenth century. This Italian innovation was exported to all Europe, including France (Normandy, Nivernais, Lorraine), Netherlands, Bohemia and England.


In the border region of Avesnois-Thiérache, home of the Avesnois Ecomuseum, the earliest evidence of glassmaking dates to the fifteenth century. At that time the region was heavily wooded. In 1466 the Colnet family, probably immigrant, founded the Quiquengrogne Glassworks. A branch of the Hennezel family, who were master glassmakers from the Lorraine, established themselves in Clairefontaine to make flat glass using the ‘Lorraine method’. By 1675 they were operating a glassworks in Anor to make champagne bottles. In the duchy of Guise, the development of glassmaking in Le Garmouzet in 1661 was encouraged by those dukes of Lorraine who were members of the House of Guise. The end of the Ancien Régime (‘old rule’) marked the gradual decline of the gentleman glassmaker.


By the eighteenth century glassmakers were entering new markets with the manufacture of champagne bottles, in the shadow of the flat-glass factories and crystal glassworks like Baccarat which bought the Trélon Glassworks in 1826. With its great expertise in glassmaking and the arrival of the railway in the early twentieth century, Avesnois-Thiérache enjoyed great success in the booming perfume and cosmetics sectors until the 1960s. The growing competition and the development of new materials irrevocably undermined the last brown-glass factory in the region, the Mulat-Chomel Glassworks. The latter closed in Fourmies in 1958 while the last clear-glass factory, the Parant Glassworks in Trélon, closed in 1977. Today, this rich glassmaking past subsists in the form of the Boussois Glassworks, a Franco-Belgian industrial initiative specializing in flat glass which was nurtured into existence by Hector Despret.