In about 1876, deposits of high grade silica were discovered in the United States. This discover led to glass-making formulas that were a much higher grade than what was found in Europe at that time. In addition, cutting wheels driven by natural gas were introduced which were a great improvement over the steam driven cutting wheels that had been the standard up until that time. These two events changed the glass industry and brought about a period known as the Brilliant Period of American Cut Glass.
All glass that is slated to be decorated by cutting is known as lead crystal. Glassmakers added up to 50% lead oxide which made the glass soft enough to cut without it shattering. The cuts are deep and sharp and reflect and refract the light in astonishing ways. The surface of the glass is highly polished and the clarity of the lead crystal is stunning. The glass is thick, up to 1/2″.
So, how do you recognize glass made from the American Brilliant Period?
One of the best ways to learn about the Brilliant Period is to visit a show so that you can see and handle pieces in person. If this is not possible, here are some tips for identifying American Brilliant.
Take a look at the glass itself. Remember, not all quality is the same, even within the American Brilliant Period. Hold the glass up out into the daylight, if possible, and look through it. It will not distort the object you are looking at through the glass. It should be perfectly clear and there should be no swirls or shadows.
Study the cuts. Cutting was done with a steel cutting wheel and then the marks from the wheel were erased using a stone wheel. The design should be accurate, even and symmetrical. Hobs are uniform and in the case of rayed pieces, the rays are of equal length and meet precisely in the center. The craftsmen who made these pieces were highly skilled and shortcuts were not taken.
Polishing was an art in itself. It was hand-polished using a wooden wheel. Now, true, some turned to acid polishing and if done correctly, could produce the same results. The pattern should have sharp edges, not rounded. Errors in using an acid bath resulted in a pebbly or grainy finish.
Lead crystal is heavy due to the lead content and you will immediately recognize the weight if you were to compare a leaded item with one that is not. The lead crystal will also ring when tapped gently. It is almost bell-like.
The United States Comes Into Its Own
The period from 1885 to 1905, American cut glass surpassed European glass cutting standards, with its own style; complex and dramatic. No more was there one or two motifs that covered the piece but intricate designs that were truly a signature of American Brilliant.
The use of a long-wave black light in a dark room will also help you to confirm that what you have is cut glass from the Brilliant Period. Because of the manganese used in old glass to neutralize the iron, it will fluoresce green. Modern glass will not…it will be pink or purple.
Daye is a seasoned collectible and antique dealer and collector. She not only shares much of her research but also anecdotes about her life and adventures. You can read more about A Day in the Life here. She also hosts JunkboxTreasures which is a research site.