T.S. has a cocktail bottle collection and sends me two silver overlays on glass decanter bottles. One features a heavy design of thistles, referencing Scotland, and the other features a fanciful crowing rooster and his rooting mate. These two glorious bottles show two different techniques of silver overlay glass, and both are little treasures: the thistle bottle I place at $300 and the chicken bottle I place at $150.
T.S. writes me that he collects all kinds of decorative liquor bottles; he has Murano glass decanters, silver overlay examples, old cut crystal from the 19th century, and colored blown glass decanters (they are quite small) from the Georgian era in England, not to mention good American Pittsburgh glass from the late 19th century. But his collection lacks American examples from about 1920 to about 1935, and there’s a reason for this, and an example of how politics influences art.
The chicken bottle dates from the 1930s, and the thistle bottle from the 1920s, and you are probably thinking — we couldn’t DRINK in the 1920s due to Prohibition (1920-1933). But folks in Great Britain didn’t have that problem! So, TS expanded his horizons of collecting to include British bottles when we were DRY.
Silver overlay over glass and porcelain is a technique invented in the late 19th century, a highly technical process, developed mainly in Germany, from whence come the most sought-after examples created in the Art Nouveau style. Two scientific properties make this technique possible: one the non-conductivity of glass and porcelain, and two, the conductivity of silver, which allows it to bind to itself and other metals. An artisan, in the case of the chicken bottle, painted those birds on the glass with a mixture of silver and turpentine oil; the bottle is fired and cooled and placed for up to 30 hours in a silver solution bath, and zapped with electricity. The silver binds to the design.
Because the relief is “low” (the depth of the overlay). the design is almost flush with the glass, which indicates that the design was etched in silhouette with acid before painting. This is a painstaking process, as the etcher must match the filler’s and painter’s job. You can see that this technique was not easy in the first two quarters of the 20th century.
In the case of the thistle bottle, the relief (the silver depth) is fairly high, using a greater amount of precious silver, and points to the greater skill and time spent by the artisans. The more silver used, the higher the relief, and the more pronounced and permanent the design. If you have polished a piece of low relief silver overlay, you will gradually wear that design away. Early (1890-1929) silver overlay glass and porcelain, especially pieces made in Germany, bear a greater silver content; by the 1950s, most wedding caches included a cheap silver overlay candy dish!
This technique was popular on German porcelain; Rosenthal made some great designs, and Gorham in the U.S. was a leading maker of silver overlay on glass.
A curious and inventive combination of chemistry, electro-magnetic, physics, art, and specialized craftsmanship is contained in these objects 1890-1939, also the era of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which was philosophically opposed to industrialization of the arts, and eschewed mass production in factories for objects for the home.
Despite the high-falutin aims of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the very people who “needed” good art couldn’t afford it. Conversely, silver overlay was inherently highly technical and took a whole factory, many scientists, and electronic equipment. Whereas the Arts and Crafts movement aimed to provide every household in England and the U.S. with honest, simple, artistically correct handmade objects, those pieces proved to be more expensive because they were hand-wrought.
Likewise, silver overlay was affordable only to those with “extra” money because the factory process involved specialized workers over a certain length of time.
Silver overlay flourished despite the aesthetic aims of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the wealthy were drawn to the gleam of precious silver. Earlier pieces were sold in the best jewelry shops, and the Royal House of Saudi Arabia ordered a huge dining service in silver overlay porcelain. Silver overlay was then a luxury object, until the 1950’s when it became “middle class.” Just ask that candy dish that sat on your grandmother’s hi-fi set. It was a wedding present from her brother Joe, who was a butcher in the 1950s in the Bronx.