Antique Paperweights

In the modern age of paperless files, easy printing and, cheap paper it is easy to dismiss paperweights as a useless desk accessory meant only to add a little color to the workspace. However during the “golden age” of paperweights they were extremely practical.

At a time when producing a document meant writing by hand with uncooperative ink and expensive paper in a drafty, open windowed environment made losing or ruining a paper a serious time consuming problem. Having your painstakingly copied documents, or double copied in the case of contracts, blow around the room could set a clerk back by hours.

Given this obvious practicality it is difficult to understand why specially made paperweights didn’t come into regular use until the mid 19th century. Before that time people made use of rocks, inkwells, and just about any heavy object at hand to keep their papers in place.

The first decorative paper weights come from France. In 1845 glass factories in Clichy, St. Louis, and most notably Baccarat began making lovely glass weights for the growing middle class market. While there have been countless other manufactures of paperweights these three names are the ones of interest to the novice collector.

The French glass factories of the 1840s stood on the shoulders of the Italian glass workers of Murano (Venice) who continued the artistic traditions of ancient Rome. While the Italians utilized and retained many of the ancient processes, the French were the first to capitalize on the optical characteristics of glass. They enclosed their decorations motifs within glass spheres and made the magnification part of the total effect. Their paperweights of the late 1840s stand as the artistic pinnacle of the classic period. The Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851 showcased the French and German/Bohemian paperweights and they were subsequently emulated and ‘improved’ by the glass houses in the United Kingdom and slightly later in the United States.

Most were decorated with a “millefiori” design of colored glass canes, such as radiated twisted ribbons called crowns, swirls, or random scrambled patterns. Others contained animal or plants shapes. These motifs are among the most desired by modern antique paperweight collectors. Most paperweights made at the time were between 2.5 and 3.5 inches across and were colorfully decorated.

The design was then covered in clear glass to protect and magnify the internal pattern or motif. Sometimes and additional level of colored glass was then placed over the clear with windows and other shapes carved into it creating a multi-layered affect.

Generally, but not always, the work of these great glass factories are marked with identifying stamps on the bottoms. Weights with dates and manufacturer marks bring the highest resell value. However even when the mark is missing it is fairly easy to identify them. Often times the pieces made by the French big three listed above can be recognized by unique patterns and color combinations used by the factory.

For example, Clichy specialized in elaborate overlays and a pink floral pattern so strongly identified with the company it is called the Clichy Rose. Baccarat is famous for its fruit and vegetable patterns. St. Louis and Baccarat both made large numbers of human and animal silhouettes weights.

When considering buying an antique paperweight the first thing to consider is condition. Given that they are made of glass, frequently handled, and prone to rolling off of tabletops it is not surprising that paperweights are often scratched or chipped. The presence of scratches greatly reduces the value of these collectibles.

While it is possible to remove many of these imperfections through polishing and careful grinding these processes general decrease the value of the antique as much as the mars and is not advisable. Unless you are sure of the worth of an individual weight or the price is irresistibly low it best to pass on visibly flawed paperweights.

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