JABLONEC NAD NISOU
Bijouterie to the World
The incredible artisans who make the beads and handcraft each individual button I use are the last of a proud tradition of sturdy, exceptional beauty in a little mountain town which once lead the world in production and innovation.
Over the centuries, their craft has survived the destruction of their village, the banishment of key craftsmen, two world wars, communist takeover and independence again- only to be critically challenged by globalization , technology, internet knock-offs -- and the task of attracting another generation to their exacting work in front of a blazing forge.,
Glass and crystal makers flourished throughout Europe for centuries, but the abundant natural resources and continuous innovation of those in Jablonec - 32 km from Poland in the Jizerra Mountains of the Czech Republic -- earned the remote village the title of "Bijouterie to the World" for nearly a century. I am proud to showcase the work of the remaining artisans today.
Evidence of glassmaking in Northern Bohemia goes back to the 13th century . Some of the names synonymous with crystal and glass excellence today have deep regional roots.
- The Riedel family - whose glasses are a contemporary vinophile favorite -- were known as the "Glass Kings of the Jizerra Mountains." They are credited with the first mass production of costume jewelry -- democratizing adornment that had previously been the realm of the rich and royal. But traveling with these newly minted treasures was treacherous. Their founder, Johann Christophe Riedel, was murdered on a Bohemian glass sales trip in 1723.
- A young glass cutter named Daniel Swarovski learned glassmaking from his father in a nearby mountain town, but started his own company in Austria after inventing an electric crystal cutting machine with the promise to bring "diamonds" to all.
- And at least two young tradesmen I have learned of -- all uncles of two of my grandparents -- came to Jablonec from Prussia to toil in glass painting, cutting and finishing in order to eventually save enough money for their passage to Ellis Island in the late 1800s to work at the booming railyards in Buffalo, New York.
By the 1800s, "sample men" from Jablonec travelled the world, introducing their handcrafted buttons and beads to the runways of Paris and eventually the fresh fashion of New York flappers. The men carried ideas back from all corners of the globe driving the Jablonec production of tribal beads for Africans, regalia items for Native Americans and even religious items for Far Eastern faiths. The village itself became an international commerce center as costume jewelry merchants flocked to the town for the "Austrian glass rush" in pursuit of highly-sought bijouterie.
Jablonec's glass and its' artisans have been absurdly resilient under at least a half dozen flags. The work has survived two world wars and weathered Communist takeover -- along with all the unimaginable human tragedy of the economic and political upheaval.
The village was torched to ashes during the Crusades, but from the embers rose a settlement of displaced German craftsman -- and the start of the glassmaking industry. It was burned to the ground again in the 1600s during the 30-Year War and the Lutheran community was subsequently exiled. But still the community emerged again to become a leading taxation source for the House of Hapsburg .
The upheaval of the first World War and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire dampened production, but within a short period of time the region boasted more than 700 companies selling costume jewelry from the new Czech state. That narrow window between wars proved to be the last best time for the industry there.
THE GREATEST CHALLENGE YET
Today the challenges of technology, globalization and young workers rejecting the hot, exacting work of the presser in front of the blazing forge-- have left a few prospering large companies producing molded beads by modern methods -- and a handful of surviving, old-school artisans.
These mom and pop shops largely use the molds and methods that have been handed down in their families for generations sometimes augmented with new ideas. The makers often take other jobs to keep their tradition alive.
The buttons are pressed one by one and the beads still molded, faceted and/ or table cut cut in small batches with with an artful eye and rudimentary equipment.
At the start on my creative journey from journalism to jewelry , I was caught too often by online sellers guaranteeing genuine Czech Glass buttons -- only to deliver poor-quality knock-offs from another continent. These frauds show the design of historic Czech patterns -- often in actual traditional molds purchased inexpensively from one of the many liquidated Jablonec operations -- but they are made crudely with mechanical processes or poorly trained hands.
I am fortunate to now purchase my beads and buttons from three families there as well as a wonderful Czech wholesale importer in the U.S. who has been supporting these mom and pop operations exclusively for two decades. In gleefully joining their cause through my own endeavor - they have connected me both with my family history and my own fresh path forward.
I've done a lot of homework on Artisan Czech Glass and Jablonec over the past several years (even joining The Society for Bead Researchers ). I know the painting detail signatures and production quirks of the remaining quality artisans as if they were pressing beads down the block.
But no homework is required to discover the fire and history you feel when you hold one of these beads or buttons in your hand. I look forward to giving you that opportunity.
Copyright Judi Mohn Griggs 2018