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A Glass Act

This McHenry County couple has accumulated a dazzling collection of American Brilliant Glass.

It’s hard to believe glass has been around for thousands of years, but it is one of the oldest man-made substances on Earth.

It’s hard to believe glass has been around for thousands of years, but it is one of the oldest man-made substances on Earth. Glass was primarily used for utilitarian purposes, although it wasn’t used for windows for a few centuries. In the meantime, glass emerged as one of the most important sources for creating beautiful vessels such as bowls, decanters and bells. England, Ireland, France and other countries carved glass to capture the light in each artisan’s pattern. This developing art became highly prized among the wealthy classes.

European cut glass had devoted followers for several hundred years when, in 1992, McHenry County resident Jerry went shopping for antique European cut glass as a special gift for his wife, Barbara. Jerry found a glass bowl that seemed a little different than the others he had seen. He bought it and had no idea what he had just started.

Jerry had found his first piece of American Brilliant Glass. Today, he and Barbara own a collection of more than 400 pieces of this exquisitely cut glass.

They have a wide variety of pieces, which are displayed throughout their house. All the pieces started out as something actually used in the homes of the rich and powerful, not the average workingman. For example, bells were used for summoning servants, and baskets were fashioned for fruit or flowers. The couple never uses their collection for anything other than display, though.

“It’s the high lead content in the glass,” Jerry explains. “It is not recommended to use the pieces for food because no one knows how much lead could leach into the food.”

The average amount of lead in the glass is about 65 percent.

Now the proud owners of some rare boudoir lamps, candlesticks, trumpet vases, a matched pair of jack-in-the-pulpit vases and a unique covered punch bowl with 10 matching cups, they no longer collect any other type of glass.

Sparkle Plenty
“American Brilliant has a truly sparkling and silvery sheen to it,” Jerry says with the reverence only a serious collector would have.

“The glass is very heavy, too,” says Barbara. “Some pieces weigh four or five pounds.”

The glass is also usually deeply carved with famous patterns. Many patterns are patented and sought after by collectors. Some were created by individual artists, but the great American glass houses, such as Hawkes, Clark G and Libby also produced popular and unique pieces. Many of these are signed, which can increase the value of a piece.

“We have never collected for investment, though,” they both point out.

“It has strictly been for the beauty and workmanship of each piece,” Barbara said.

All of Barbara and Jerry’s collection pieces are hand-blown and hand-cut.

“The blanks, which are the basic pieces of the various uncut items, were then deeply carved,” said Jerry. “This adds to the way the light hits the planes of the glass. That just isn’t there in a fake. When you know the definitive qualities in American Brilliant, you know if you’re looking at a recently made piece or not.”

American Brilliant Glass is no longer made, but there are plenty of imitators. “As you get to know the real thing, you can quickly pick out clues that tell you if you’re buying a fake,” says Jerry.

The American Brilliant Glass heyday began in the 1860s and lasted until the World War I era, when the lead content in the glass pieces was needed to make bullets for American soldiers. It didn’t completely fade out until the 1930s. American Brilliant Glass was a highly prized wedding gift for many years and became family heirlooms.

American Brilliant is recommended as decoration only, not for household use, and the price can vary from a few dollars to thousands. It can usually be found in high-end antiques stores.

From champagne tankards to heart-shaped boxes, it would seem the couple has every type of American Brilliant Glass, but no.

“There is one piece we have been searching for,” Jerry says wistfully. “It’s a tumbleup.”

A tumbleup is a special bedside ensemble consisting of a small decanter, a special stopper to hold medicine and a drinking glass that all fit snugly together.

“We look diligently every time we go antiquing,” Jerry says, “but no luck so far.”

Maybe they will someday be rewarded through their devotion to this beautiful collection. Right now, though, their home glows with the dazzling sparkle of their American Brilliant Glass. It reflects their quest for beauty and their appreciation of the American artisan.

For more information about American Brilliant Glass, visit www.cutglass.org.

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