Glass had been made in China since 700 BC , but in 1696 everything changed, thanks to snuff!
The elegant and ethereal medium known as “glass” is simply and basically made of and or silica and a flux; sodium or potassium. These elements fuse together when melted at a very high temperature, resulting in the product readily recognised as glass.
Glass is an ancient invention, having been produced for the past 5000 years and particularly since the development of techniques in the 18th century. The first glass makers were found in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, 5000 years ago with examples of this early glass surviving today. At the time, it was seen as a very exotic product and study has shown that the simple techniques used were held as secret by those ancient artisans.
The first glass products were rather crude bottles and flasks, produced by moulding the basic shape from mud. The modelled shape was held by inserting a short metal rod into one end with the shape then dipped into molten glass thus forming the “core” of the flask shape. Long molten threads of glass, known as “canes”, were then wound around this basic shape until the flask or bottle was complete.
Before its fall, Egypt held the monopoly on glass making throughout the known world. When the Romans invaded Egypt, they quickly adopted the glass making secrets discovered. It was, in fact, the Romans who continued the development of glass making with the introduction of glass blowing, around the 1st century BC. It was from this Roman development of glass making that led to the production of glass through out the Western world.
In the meantime, the Chinese had discovered glass which, in ancient China, was attributed with special properties such as the ability to keep evil spirits away. It was also considered to have healing properties being associated with gemstones and crystals, however, prior to the 17th century, the Chinese found little use for this product. It should be remembered that, up until the 19th century, architecture worldwide used very little glass in windows, with the Chinese favouring sheets of translucent paper. Nor was glass required for storage purposes due to China’s highly developed and refined production of porcelain.
While China had been producing glass since about 700 BC with various small glass workshops operating throughout the country, most of these workshops with their small random outputs, were short lived. It is also apparent that glass did not rate Imperial patronage until the late 17th century with the Kang Xi Emperor (1662-1722) establishing the first state glass factory as an Imperial workshop in 1696. The workshop was located within the palace walls of the Forbidden City and was staffed with the best craftsmen to be found in China.
The beautiful Chinese glass, so well known in the West as “Peking glass”, was in fact, introduced to the Chinese by a 17th century German Jesuit missionary priest. The missionary supervised the establishment of the Imperial workshop and brought many Western techniques of glass and enamel work to the Chinese court. As a result, Peking glass has been correctly described as a “stepchild” in the great family of Chinese decorative arts.
Interestingly, it was the introduction of snuff, or, finely powdered tobacco, that led to the establishment of the Imperial workshop. When Europeans first arrived in China, not only did they discover new and exciting things, but the Chinese, equally unaware of the Western world, discovered ideas new to China and snuff taking was one of them!
Due to the fast developing habit of using snuff at the Imperial court and it quickly gaining popularity in high society, glass snuff bottles were produced. The Imperial workshop commenced production of tiny bottles specifically, for the purpose of containing snuff or powdered tobacco being for use by the Imperial family, or, given as gifts to civil and military ministers of the Imperial court and foreign diplomats. black and gold bedside lamps