The American Brilliant Period in cut glass history began around 1850 and lasted into the early 1900s. Immigrants helped supply glass houses in the United States with skilled cutters allowing them to develop a product rivaling European cut glass. Prior to that time, most cut glass pieces were produced in England, Ireland, and France.
When American manufacturers displayed their wares at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, their clear, bright, leaded glass garnered new respect when compared to glass exhibited from other countries. From that point on, American cut glass became extremely popular as gift items and most mid-income to affluent households held at least a few pieces to grace their most elegant tables during holiday celebrations and year-round.
Crafting American Brilliant Cut Glass
The process of making this favored glass was time-consuming and expensive. Facets were cut into finished glass pieces by pressing them against a large rotating iron or stone wheel, according to The Glass Encyclopedia website. The nicest pieces of cut glass have a high lead oxide content giving them extra sparkle showing off the exceptional shine of the cutting in this clear glass.
Through the American Brilliant Period, crafters moved away from hand blowing blanks to blown glass made with molds, and eventually incorporated design elements in the blown mold as well. The craftsmanship diminished somewhat as manufacturing processes evolved in this way.
The way the items were polished also changed over time, going from hand finishing to a strong acid bath to eliminate sharp edges. This method worked but lacked the same high-quality finish when compared to the earlier handcrafted glass.
The patterns changed, too, as corners were cut to save money and increase profits. In general, the decorations were less elaborate as time passed with less swirled cuts and precise points cut into the glass. Artistry was less important at this time as the focus shifted to the bottom line.
What Collectors Look For
Avid collectors look for pieces incorporating the most workmanship, which often had numerous hands touch each piece before they were deemed complete. And, as with most antiques and collectibles, older items with more handcrafting sell for higher prices in comparison to lesser quality pieces.
Of course, some American Brilliant pieces that began with molded blanks still shine as brightly as older cut glass, so don't rule them out completely. Just remember to keep quality differences in mind before writing a hefty check.
Some cut glass pieces can even be found with a signature, but be sure the marks are authentic. In an article formerly posted on the Collecting Channel (no longer online), cut glass collector Joyce Worley reported that signatures are rare on early wares since many makers "often tried to pass their pieces off as more-expensive European glass." Genuine signed pieces were usually produced in the late 1800s through the end of the American Brilliant period around 1916.
Keep in mind, too, that signatures are very often hard to locate and decipher on cut glass pieces, so it’s important to inspect them carefully. Popular names to look for are Hawkes and Libbey along with lesser-known companies such as Dorflinger, Egginton, Hoare, Jewel, Meriden, Sinclaire and Tuthill. Collectively, these make up the nine leading manufacturers of cut glass during the American Brilliant period, according to the American Cut Glass Association website.
Evaluating American Brilliant Cut Glass
The best way to determine if cut glass pieces are the older, more-valuable selections is to examine them in person with a trained professional's guidance. A visit to a high-end antique show where American Brilliant pieces are on display is a good place to start. If that's not feasible, or you just can’t wait to expand your learning, reading up on the subject provides a good substitute.
Identifying American Brilliant Cut Glass, a reference guide by Bill and Louise Boggess for Schiffer Books comes highly recommended by Worley. She also suggests looking for large elaborate pieces, like punch bowls with under plates and large cake stands, when out and about. These are the most valuable items in this collecting genre and might not be priced as high as they should at flea markets or estate sales.
Items with an outer layer of colored glass, called cut-to-clear, also bring high prices. Be sure to do some research to make sure you're not purchasing a piece of newer European glass. The new pieces don’t have the fine look of American Brilliant cut-to-clear glass but can be confusing to a novice just the same. This is where visiting a glass show in your area can provide quite an education and help to develop your eye for quality.
Checking cut glass for damage is also very important. With all those sharp edges, it can be very easy to overlook a flaw in the usual manner of checking glassware for damage by running your fingers along the edges of a piece. Also, remember never to use cut glass to serve hot foods. Doing so can cause the glass to crack as it was not made for this purpose.