Monday, June 8, 2015

Jablonec glass: from craft to industry

Today, hand-cut, engraved, blown and painted decorative glassware (from tableware and ornaments to chandeliers) from the former Bohemia is among the best known Czech exports and a favourite with tourists. This isn't to say, however, that it's a thriving industry.

Jablonec ("Yab-lon-etz") is a town of approx. 45,000 people in the Nisou Valley (the town's full name is Jablonec nad Nisou) north of Prague, in what used to be the kingdom of Bohemia. Together with neighbouring Moravia and Czech Silesia, Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its fall in 1918, when the three territories were united as Czechoslovakia. Bohemia has long been famous for its glass.

In the 18th century, Bohemia displaced Venice as the centre of Europe's glass industry - especially through its 'trademark' cut-glass and cut-crystal. Over the next century, Venice fought to regain its pre-eminent position, introducing many innovations as it did so.

Bohemian glass suffered a real body blow when the Soviet-dominated Communist Party - which in 1948 instituted a one-party dictatorship of Czechoslovakia - pursued an aggressive policy of 'socialising' the glass industry, i.e. forcing hundreds of home-based glass workers into various forms of 'collective'. 1989's 'Velvet Revolution' replaced the Communist Party with a multi-party parliamentary democracy; and in 1993, Czechoslovakia split (peacefully) into The Czech Republic and Slovakia.

What next for Czech glass?
Semi-industrial glass blowing, Jablonec
In today's Jablonec, the glass industry is split between a large number of small, mostly home-based craft businesses and a smaller number of large industrial manufacturers and retailers. The larger businesses are able to achieve economies of scale which the smaller ones can't match - especially when cheap imports from China are flooding the global market.

On a recent visit to Jablonec, it appeared that unless there is major new investment in the smaller companies, they face significant decline. With them will go centuries-old traditions of glass working that today are maintained by a very small number of - often ageing - craftspeople.   

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