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Now on View: Paperweights

Arthur Rubloff began purchasing paperweights in 1947 as gifts, but quickly became enamored with their craftsmanship and intricacy and began his own journey as one of the foremost paperweight collectors of the 20th century. I recently read that he primarily collected paperweights from the Classic period and had to ask...what and when exactly was the Classic period of paperweights?

I learned that the Classic period took place from 1845 through 1860, with the beginning marked by the 1845 Vienna Industrial Exhibition. At that exhibition, Venetian glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia showed spherical glass weights in which small pieces of multicolored, shaped glass were encased in a thick, magnifying lens. He utilized the millefiori ("a thousand flowers") and lampwork techniques, both ancient practices that were newly appropriated for this purpose.

Both processes involve heating and manipulating colored pieces of glass to create miniaturized—and usually floral—designs, but each has a unique look. In the image above, the paperweight on the top right illustrates the lampwork technique in which small pieces of glass were shaped to create three dimensional sculptures of flowers. The millefiori technique, however, used glass rods that were heated and then fused together. They were then stretched out like taffy to miniaturize the design. What we see in the image above (toward the bottom right with one larger flower in the middle and six smaller ones around it) are cross sections of several different rods combined together to create a floral pattern and a kaleidoscopic effect. A combination of both techniques exists in the paperweight just above with the aqua and white flower in the center.

Following the 1845 exhibition, the rest of the glassmaking world promptly took note and three of the great French enterprises—Saint-Louis, Baccarat, and Clichy—immediately began working to perfect their own techniques. Ultimately, the prominent houses produced hundreds of thousands of paperweights over the next 15 years.

And now back to the Art Instiute. Arthur Rubloff collected over 1400 of these Classic paperweights and gave the majority of his collection to the Art Institute in 1978. The museum's newly opened gallery devoted to Rubloff's collection greatly expands the number of pieces on view (800, to be exact) and better showcases the colorful orbs that Truman Capote once referred to as "fragments of a dream."