Czech Republic: The art of glass

Mundanity and artistry combine to fascinating effect at the Moser glassworks in Karlovy Vary.

By David Whitley
Published 2 May 2017, 16:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 14:51 BST
Moser glassworks

Moser glassworks.

Photograph by Alamy

Entering the shop, there really is a temptation to buy. Even for someone not overly inclined to taking home a souvenir, it's undeniable that the glass work is worth-taking-home beautiful. Then, unfortunately, comes a glimpse of the price tags. Ah. Maybe not.

Founded in 1857 by engraver Ludwig Moser, the first Moser glassworks was a workshop in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary. As the company grew, the business relocated in 1893 to a factory on the outskirts of town, and since then Moser glass pieces began to find their way into mansions, palaces and oligarch's villas around the world.

The show-off pieces in the Moser Museum, in Karlovy Vary, are masterpieces of colour, shaping and engraving. But if the museum is essentially a giant advert, then stepping into the factory itself offers a few things that are wholly unexpected.

It would be reasonable to expect the factory to be a whirring hive of cutting-edge, top-of-the-range machinery. Instead, there's a guy wearing shorts and Crocs blowing into a tube. Next to him is another chap, with a bottle of beer by his side. It's a non-alcoholic beer, but apparently the 'non-alcoholic' part was optional in the past.

It seems remarkably laid-back, but there's not a lot of point in forcing masters of their art to show up to work in uniform.

There's a strong hierarchy, with the finickiest parts of the process left to those with the most experience. In the case of the wine glasses, this means the assistant might do the part that contains the wine before passing it to his senior to work on the glass and stem.

Sometimes it's about power — the bigger pieces require more strength and lung capacity – but most of the time it's about a steady hand and getting the intricacies just right. At the quality-control stage, up to 80% of pieces are rejected, melted down and recycled. And the more experienced the glassblower, the lower that percentage.

What's striking, watching the operation, is the nerveless, unhurried competence — it feels like watching a yoga instructor meticulously but seemingly effortlessly work through a few warm-up poses. The furnaces may be roaring at over 1,000C but no one is wearing gloves or steel-capped boots.

The wooden scoop paddles are dipped in water to shape the curves, moulds are twisted while blowing, and unwanted ends are dipped back in the furnace to burn them off. There's a strangely entrancing, humdrum nature to it all that seems entirely at odds with the glamour of the finished product. It seems inherently odd that a husband-and-wife team, happy in roles as master and assistant, can be dressed like they're about to do a bit of wallpapering on a quiet Sunday afternoon, while producing works of art that will later sell for thousands of pounds.

A visit becomes something more than a lesson in glassmaking; it's a reminder of how something spectacular is often the result of something very calm, orderly, practiced and mundane. There's a magic in the ordinary.

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