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How Millefiori Works

War of Fiori

For a long time, France's glass industry was better known for its utility-oriented window glass than for innovative artistry [source: Savage]. That changed with paperweights.

These little, weighted balls were not a new invention, but up until the 19th century, they were meant for function, not fancy. To contrast the unpleasing aesthetics of the industrial revolution, world leaders started holding world's fairs and other exhibitions highlighting innovation and art. It was at just such an exhibition around 1845 that Venetian glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia showed up with some of the first known millefiori paperweights. The technique took off, launching the classic period of paperweights that would last until roughly 1860.

Their popularity grew because at the time the trinkets were cheap to make, but so beautiful they were seen as luxury items. And letter writing was still all the rage, so there were lots of papers to tame in those drafty chateaus.

By the mid-1800s, the paperweight game was cutthroat with glasshouses -- with industry leaders Baccarat, Saint Louis and Clichy vying to have the best paperweights. They weren't the only ones making paperweights -- glass house Pantin also made some, for example -- but the big three made the most and were the best known. Each house strived to make the most complicated and most beautiful weights in the art world.

Patterns ranged from a simple smattering of vivid-colored glass flowers on a stark white field to windstorms of swirling, multi-colored and animal silhouetted cane.

Saint Louis was the first to start making them. This house was best known for its designs using alternating twists of glass filigree and ribbon to form a crown. At the top of each globe was a millefiori cane which became the house trademark.

Hot on Saint Louis's heels was Baccarat. The house was known for taking on the triple weight, which was essentially three separate globes put together to create one mega weight. This was considered a technological achievement since the globes had to be fired three times. Each time a globe is reheated, there is a chance it could fall apart. Baccarat's didn't.

Lagging only slightly behind, but creating perhaps the most well-known millefiori design is Clichy. Its work was 80 percent millefiori. The house became known for the popular Clichy rose, made from flattened white and pink rods formed into the tight petal construction of a rose. It also included millefiori C's and in rare instances the name Clichy itself. However, the house never made another paperweight after 1870 when it was taken over by Sevres, another glass house operating at the time.

In the end, artists in each house ended up making what remains today as some of the most sought-after collectable glass. To find out how they did it, keep reading.