How Millefiori Works

Museum of London Curator Liz Goodman holds a rare polychrome Roman millefiori dish found in an East London excavation. Goodman reassembled the dish, which is made of hundreds of indented glass petals.
Peter McDiarmid/Getty Images

Rich reds and flirty pinks, endless swirls of heart-aching blue -- a thousand tiny flowers, suspended forever, never changing under a shelter of clear glass.

Millefiori, Italian for "thousand flowers," is a pattern made of glass used to decorate vessels, blown glass pieces and most commonly, paperweights. Clusters of cane glass arranged in a pattern are fused, stretched and sliced into tiny rounds, which in cross section reveal the original pattern -- most famously a flower. The name millefiori, which at one time referred to ceramic objects covered in tiny roses, was passed on to glass pieces around the 19th century in reference to how the mosaic glass flowers looked trapped in the glass of paperweights [source: Savage] .


The name might be recent, but the technique itself is ancient. Known at times as mosaic glass or Roman glass, it's a sophisticated and time-consuming art form that dates back to the Egyptians at least 3,500 years ago [source: Carboni and Adamjee] .

Over the centuries, the technique has been replaced and at times fallen out of favor. Yet cultures continue to rediscover it, lured back by those tiny flowers and the infinite ways glass can be worked into something new and surprising.

One of its most intriguing rebirths was the paperweight craze of the mid-1800s. France's contribution to the paperweight boom revived the industry [source: Phillips]. Drafty rooms and a fondness for letter writing brought about a renaissance for millefiori in those tiny, handy globes and a bitter rivalry among the famous French glass houses. Their work, born out of desperation and competition, is still in demand by collectors [source: Paperweight Collectors Association].

Millefiori has remained popular, and the technique is still used today. It can be found not only in paperweights, but also in pendants and decorative pieces. And like so many times before, it has gone through yet another reimagining, this time with polymer clay.

For now, let's take a trip back in time to the days of amulets and asps, Pharaohs and Sphinx, might and millefiori. Take a look at the next page to get started.


Millefiori, the First Millennium

A French restorer assists her Afghan colleagues with reassembling a millefiori discovered in Begram, Afghanistan.
Francois Durand/Getty Images

Glass has been a staple in the arts since about 3000 B.C. By 2500, business was booming for glass makers and by 1400 B.C., they'd discovered a new trick. Referred to as mosaic glass, the first millefiori pieces were rudimentary: long slender rods of hot glass rolled into the surface of existing vessels [source: Phillips].

As the art evolved, the work became increasingly intricate, incorporating multiple layers of glass in myriad colors and shapes. Artisans eventually started slicing off rounds of rods, fusing them together and using them to create decorative vessels and mosaic wall hangings.


Bitter battles around 1300 B.C., however, would bring a 500-year dearth in the Egyptian arts. But once the civil unrest was sorted out, the arts -- including glassmaking -- experienced a resurgence in both Egypt and Alexandria for several centuries [source: Phillips].

However, glass blowing, believed to be invented in the first century B.C., changed things. It was easier and faster, meaning glass could be mass produced, unlike the laborious millefiori.

Millefiori fell out of favor but managed to make a comeback around the 8th and 9th century in the Islamic world. This is remarkable since the technique was "reinvented" through experimentation in an attempt to replicate Roman pieces [source: Carboni and Adamjee].

The technique came and went through the centuries. It wasn't until the 19th century that millefiori found its most famous form. Read on to find out the skinny on the great paperweight wars.


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.


Making Cane Glass

Glass artist Elena Rosso twists a zanfirico glass cane in Venice, Italy. Twisting different colors of molten glass together allows artists to create the patterns they desire.
Marco Secchi/Getty Images

All millefiori starts with cane -- long, slender rods of glass. To make cane, artists in most cases mix silica with soda and lime -- chemicals that lower the silica's melting point. The raw ingredients go into a giant melting furnace set anywhere from 2,100 to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit (1148.9 to 1,316 degrees Celsius). After several hours, the ingredients mix to make molten glass.

Artists can color the glass with small amounts of metal oxides. These oxides include cobalt, chrome, red iron, black copper -- which actually makes the glass aquamarine -- and nickel, which makes the glass smoky green. In addition to the furnace full of clear liquid glass, artists who regularly make millefiori pieces may keep pots of molten colored glass inside the melting furnace. Others, who may not make much millefiori, might add the color later using crushed bits of glass, but more on that in a bit.


A single cane of glass starts out either as a glob of colored liquid glass from the previously mentioned pots or a glob of clear molten glass. Whichever the artist decides to use, he or she will stick a long iron rod called a punty or a pontil into the furnace to gather the molten glass on the end. The rod is heated before it goes in the furnace to help keep the glass on the end hot from the inside.

Glass has to stay liquid enough to be malleable, but cool enough to take shape. This typically means keeping the piece's heat above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (577.8 Celsius). To do this, an artist will frequently reheat the piece in a dedicated furnace called a glory hole. Molten glass isn't stored in this furnace and is usually kept at about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1,260 Celsius). Whenever an artist needs to reheat a piece, he or she sticks the pontil with the piece on the end into this oven for a few minutes until it's malleable again.

With a glob of glass on the end of the pontil, the artist rolls it back and forth on a metal surface known as a marver. Gravity and the flat metal surface that the molten glass heats help shape the piece. Meanwhile the rolling puts pressure on the viscous glass pushing it in and out into a long, thin cylinder.

Next, the artist puts it all together. Go to the next page to find out how.


Making Millefiori Patterns

Glass artists can mix in different colors during the heating process by dipping their work in a mixture of crushed glass called frit.

The cross-section designs of these tiny, usually multi-colored rounds of glass are infinite. Here are a few of the most common.

The artist takes cooled glass canes -- still around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (537.8 Celsius) -- and gathers them together around a core in a pattern. When looked at from its end, the grouped cylinders form a picture such as a flower. The artist then reheats the piece in the glory hole.


Artists typically need many millefiori pieces. To create them, two glassmakers attach two pontils -- one at each end -- to the hot glass bundle, and then walk away from each other, stretching the glass. This is almost always a two-person job, although some very long pieces can be hung from pipe holders -- devices used to secure pontils -- and then pulled vertically. The longer the glass is stretched, the smaller the cross-section design gets.

The artist will then use a murrini chopper to slice skinny disks from the resulting pencil- thin cylinder. Murrini is a type of glass art in which multicolored cane is made into thin pieces. The counterweighted wheels of the chopper keep the artist from breaking the rod of glass. At the center of the tiny rounds is the image of the original design. The artist can use the disks alone or group them together using nichrome wire -- a metal wire that can withstand high heat. The bundle is reheated, turned on a marver, stretched and sliced. These slices have even more complex colors and designs in cross-section. The artist can repeat this process as much as he or she likes.

As another option, the artist can dip a cooled cane of glass back into the clear molten glass in the melting furnace. The artist immediately rolls the dipped rod in colored, crushed glass called frit. The clear glass is so hot, the frit sticks to the surface of the clear glass, coloring it. The artist dips the piece back into the clear glass and rolls it once again in a frit of a different color. When the artist is satisfied, he or she reheats, stretches and cuts the layered cane.

Another way to make the pattern is with a die-cut metal mold. The mold can be in any shape or design and can be several inches in diameter. Some are shaped like animal silhouettes, faces, stars or one of many other possibilities. To use this technique, the artist takes molten glass on the end of a pontil and lowers it into the mold. When the artist lifts the pontil out, the glass has taken the shape of the mold. That glass is rolled in another color of molten glass. The artist can do this repeatedly. Finally, the cane is stretched and cut, and the resulting millefiori has the image of the mold in miniature, on its face.


Making Millefiori Paperweights

Using any of the techniques mentioned before, the artist creates hundreds, sometimes thousands, of millefiori for a paperweight. The artist arranges the pieces by hand inside a metal ring and applies a glob of clear molten glass onto the arrangement with a pontil, setting the design. The metal ring not only can withstand the incredible heat of the hot glass, but will also help to keep the design tight and symmetrical. The ring also helps contain the molten clear glass, which acts as a binder as well as a magnifier for the millifiori. A release agent -- which is sort of like the non-stick spray you use in cooking -- keeps the glass from bonding to the metal as the artist works. Many artists preheat the glass chips, which have already cooled as he or she works, on a hot plate before adding the hot, clear glass. Adding molten glass to cool glass chips can cause them to crack and break.

To get the final shape of the paperweight, the artist will use a block -- a sort of wooden spatula. The block is usually made from a fruitwood. Apple, cherry and pear work the best because the dense grain pattern of the wood leaves a smooth finish on the glass. For this part, wood works better than metal, since metal can be heavy and would heat to scalding, making it impossible for the artist to hold onto it. The artist keeps the block soaking in water so that the wood is saturated. The wet block creates a pocket of steam on which the glass moves into a uniform shape.


When the artist is satisfied, he or she will put the final piece into an annealing oven. Set at about 900 degrees (482.2 Celsius), the annealing oven slowly cools down to room temperature over a set period of time. As glass cools, it shrinks and expands. Using an annealing oven helps the artist control the cooling process, preventing the glass from cracking and shattering. Most blown glass pieces, for example, might take about 10 to 12 hours. However, a paperweight, because it's so dense, may take as long as 18 hours to cool completely.

The Joys of Polymer Millefiori

Polymer clay is readily available at craft stores and can be used to create colorful patterns -- making it possible for people to attempt their own millefiori at home.

While some purists may see the process as cheating a bit, others see using polymer clay to make millefiori objects -- usually beads -- as a medium in which more people can experience and understand the art form. This is because the materials are simple, easy to come by and less time-consuming to use than glass.

Any home artist can purchase commercial clay and the materials needed to make polymer millefiori at most craft stores. In fact, the canes of clay come already put together or as separate pieces.


To put together the bull's-eye cane, for example, the artist wraps a thin strip of polymer around a thicker piece in a contrasting color [source: Ralph]. Then the artist rolls the material along the work surface to lengthen and thin it out. He or she creates rectangular and square pieces by gently pinching and stretching the clay to elongate and thin it out.

The polymer artist can also lay sheets of clay in alternating contrasting colors on top of each other to create a striped pattern, or use long rectangles of clay to make a checkerboard pattern. As with glass, the combinations are limited only by imagination.

The clay pieces, once sliced, are placed on a ceramic or metal baking tray and baked in a regular household oven. It is important to remember that undercooked clay will be fragile. Over-baked clay is a disaster: It can discolor, burn and give off noxious fumes [source: Ralph]. Most commercial clay indicates its baking temperature on its packaging. That said, a good rule of thumb is to bake the clay in a pre-heated oven between 265 and 275 degrees Fahrenheit (129.4 to 135 degrees Celsius) for 30 minutes.

The clay is then sanded and can be varnished, but it isn't necessary for most pieces.

Glass artists still use millefiori today. Ventian artist Davide Salvadore is known for combining millefiori with another, almost identical technique called Murrini in his pieces which are sold around the world [source: Kennard]. Another notable fiori sighting was in artist Joshua Simpson's "Mega Planet," a 100-pound (45.4-kilogram) paperweight resembling the Earth.

Regardless of the material and who's manipulating it, millefiori continues to be popular with artists of all types, centuries after its invention. If your interest in millefiori has bloomed, take a look at the links on the next page to learn more about it and other related topics.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Carboni, Stefano, and Qamar Adamjee. "Mosaic Glass from Islamic Lands." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Carboni, Stefano, and Qamar Adamjee. "Glass from Islamic Lands." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Corning Museum of Glass. "The Evolution of the Paperweight." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Corning Museum of Glass. "Objects from Worlds Within." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Corning Museum of Glass. "Pietro Bigaglia." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Corning Museum of Glass. "Compagnie des Cristalleries de Saint-Louis." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Corning Museum of Glass. "Compagnie des Verreries et Cristalleries de Baccarat." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Corning Museum of Glass . "Cristallerie de Clichy." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Corning Museum of Glass . "Raw Materials of Glass." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Corning Museum of Glass. "Coloring Glass." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Corning Museum of Glass. "Annealing and Tension in Glass." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Illinois State Museum. "Activity: Polymer Clay Millefiori Cane Beads." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Illinois State Museum. "Millefiori Technique." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Kennard, George. Glass Artist at the Corning Museum of Glass. Personal interviews conducted Aug. 15 and 16, 2011.
  • Penn Museum. "Glass Making in Roman Times." (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Pollard, A. M., Heron, Carl. "Archeological Chemistry." Cambridge, U.K.: Royal Society of Chemistry. 1996.
  • Phillips, Phoebe . "The Encyclopedia of Glass." New York: Crown Publishers. 1981.
  • Ralph, Emma. "Get Creative with Polymer Clay." London: New Holland Publishers. 2006.
  • Savage, George. "Glass of the World." New York: Galahad Books. 1975.
  • Trentinella, Rosemarie. "Roman Mosaic and Network Glass". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • University of Michigan. "Roman Glass-Making." Wondrous Glass. 1982. (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • University of Michigan. "Decorative Techniques of Roman Glass." Wondrous Glass. 1982. (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Whitehouse, David. "Looking Through Roman Glass." Archeology: A Publication of the Archeology Institute of America. Sept. 8, 1997. (Jan. 13, 2012)