Glassblowing history remained a highly guarded secret for many years. It is generally believed that glassmaking was discovered in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3,500 BC. It was later further developed in Egypt. Glassmaking using the basic soda-lime silica composition traveled to Phoenicia, along the coast of present-day Lebanon.
Around 50 BC, the Phoenicians learned how to blow glass with a blowing iron. The revolutionary discovery in the port city of Sarepta (Sarafand, between Sidon and Tyr) made glass production easier, faster, and cheaper, thus more available. Glass objects became more common as both functional and decorative pieces, whereas before this breakthrough, glass was used to make jewelry and beads.
The expert sailors, artisans, and merchants spread this technique throughout the Mediterranean. The art was then spread through the Roman Empire, and Venice became world-famous with its Murano blown glass.
The technique and secrets of glassblowing
The technique has remained basically the same to the present day. The melted glass (with the consistency of molasses), is gathered on the end of a hollow pipe, inflated to a bubble, and formed into a vessel by blowing, swinging, or rolling on a smooth stone or iron surface (marver). Additions, such as stems, feet, or handles, are attached by welding. While still soft, the glass can be manipulated by hand tools or cut with shears. After that, it is baked for a second time at a lower temperature to solidify the new glass.
Molten glass is a mixture of silica (sand), soda or pot ash, and limestone, when superheated inside the furnace, it turns bright orange. While it is inflated into the bubble via the use of a blowpipe, the air is inserted, the glass expands and becomes hollow. With the manipulation of movement (gravity) and hand tools, different shapes can be created. Reheating of the object allows for its manipulation as many times as is needed. Once complete, glass designs are placed in an annealing oven to slowly cool for several hours to prevent breaking.
This delicate process of creating a lasting glass artifact requires dexterous handwork, creative skills, experience, and endurance.
The struggles and challenges of this industry
The Lebanese coast was once filled with the iconic small huts of glassblowers who passed on their craft and secrets from generation to generation. Today there are only two glassblowing workshops in the whole of Lebanon.
Lebanon’s glassblowing artisans are struggling to keep their tradition alive. Sales have dropped more than 50 percent in recent years. With industrialization, glass is being mass-produced at much lower costs than by artisans. Decrease in demand, lack of interest in the craft, expensive running costs especially those related to heating the oven, and the absence of government support are leading to the disappearance of this traditional and ancient art. Moreover, Lebanon’s major ongoing crisis makes the situation even more critical.
However, efforts are made to revive the industry and sustain artisans’ profession, thanks to private initiatives in the recycling sector, organizations, and shops. Namely, our collaboration with the MET in New York City for the "Heirloom Project" by Madeline Weinrib features our handblown decanter and our handmade candleholder in clear glass is displayed at the EXPO 2020 in Dubai at the Menasa Emirati Design Platform. The revival of this craft comes from the growing worldwide interest of handmade, slow made items.
We, at Orient 499, believe that glassblowing traditional techniques are part of the identity of our artisans and their culture. We work with highly skilled glassblowers, and offer a range of hand-blown glass articles for everyday and decorative use, bringing you unique masterpieces crafted with passion. By empowering the artisans, we help preserve our precious Lebanese cultural heritage and protect families and community life.