Paul Crist Laburnum

Bob Jordan Glass - In search Of Mottles

I first encountered Bob Jordan's magnificent green and yellow mottled glass a few years ago. The glass was used to make the flower petals and leaves in this 28" Laburnum shade. This was one of a series of table, floor and chandelier models made by Paul Crist Studios. The 22" size was also offered too. It is simply stunning in every way. It’s no wonder that these have been consigned to auction masquerading, innocently or otherwise, as original Tiffany Studios shades. Such is the peril of buying Tiffany these days. The pictures speak for themselves, click to see a couple of larger images. Here is Bob's recollection of his glass making days.

Sometime in 1964 I accepted a position in outside sales and unwittingly set off on a search for something beyond purchase orders. In my travels I found I had varying amounts of free time between sales calls. Wanting to do something with that time, I started visiting antique stores, which in the 60’s were a “growth industry”. During those visits I found myself “mysteriously drawn” (explanation to follow) to what was called a “leaded glass lampshade”, some of which were more intricate than others. I also heard them called “Tiffany Type”, which made no sense at the time but did later.

To explain “mysteriously drawn”, allow me go back to the late 1940’s. My mother had a friend, a widow, who lived in South Central Los Angeles. From time to time we would pay a social call on her. She was a very nice lady and had a lot of “old” stuff in her home. In her living room there was a hanging lamp shade that captured my eye. The crown and top consisted of plain bent glass panels but the skirt was a little more elaborate as smaller pieces of glass were joined together in a grape cluster and leaf design. So while I was unaware of it at the time, that lamp had made a lasting impression on me.

When I came across my first Tiffany Studios lamp, a 16” acorn shade on a cast bronze stick base, something told me it was special. The shade alone was different as the background pieces went through a color transition from top to bottom. At the top row the individual pieces were almost all green, but with each descending row some white was gradually mixed in with the green until those in the bottom row were almost all white. That alone was very different from the somewhat insipid and uniform amber colored slag glass used for backgrounds in the Tiffany Types. It also suggested that an artist was involved in making this shade. In this single lamp shade the difference between those made by the Tiffany Studios and those called “Tiffany Type” became obvious.

Over time as I was exposed to more and more of the lamp shades made by the Tiffany Studios, I marveled at the number of different types of sheet glasses they made with names like: streaky, rippled, confetti, drapery, mottled, etc. Of all these different types of Tiffany’s sheet glasses, the ones that really caught my eye were those with the ring mottles. I decided I was going to try to bring those ring mottles back to life, and my search began.

I already had some exposure to glass and ceramics as the company I worked for specialized in applying porcelain enamel coatings to steel and aluminum. I used this connection to develop contacts that I hoped would be helpful sometime in the future. I soon learned that if I was going to make a ring-mottled glass, it wasn't going to be easy.

During my search for knowledge and experience I had a Eureka moment when I found Dr. H.H. Blau, Professor Emeritus of Glass Science at The Ohio State University. Early in his career Dr. Blau had done some consulting work for the Tiffany Studios so he was somewhat familiar with their operations. To Dr. Blau I was a pesky fly that he kept trying to shoo, but couldn’t. I knew so little about making glass and he knew so much that it was hard to communicate. Finally in 1975 he became exasperated enough to send me a batch composition for a barium opal glass.

In August of 1976 I had my second Eureka moment when I found Phil Robinson, a retired chief engineer of a Los Angeles company that makes glass bottles. Phil designed and helped me build my first glass melting pot furnace, consisting of single layers of insulating and fire brick inside of a 55 gal metal drum. Phil also designed a burner system that looked like it could raise the temperature in all of Los Angeles by 20 degrees, but as it turned out it was just what I needed.

With the help of Paul Crist, I started out making glass using a small rolling table he built, and a small front-loading ceramic kiln to anneal the glass. Paul and I were going to be partners, but as he had so much going on that just didn’t work out. But without Paul’s initial help and encouragement I might well have floundered and failed early on. Later on Paul became my biggest and best customer.

With this primitive equipment and while still holding my full time job, glass making was limited to weekends. My wife Donna, a full time schoolteacher, was pressed into service as my chief glass roller. I would pour a puddle of very hot glass on the table and she would roll it into a small oval sheet. The Barium opal batch composition had to be adjusted to soften it a bit and while the glass made from it had a lot of “shadow” mottles and surface hazing, there was nary a ring mottle in sight. So, it was back to Dr. Blau.

In January of 1977 Dr. Blau sent me another batch composition, this time for a lead based opal. It was easier to melt and roll and eventually RING MOTTLES did start to appear, but I hadn’t crossed the finish line yet as Donna was still rolling those little patties of glass and only on weekends.

In May of 1977 things changed. My employer caught on to what I was doing, so I was shown the door. In retrospect it was for the best as it forced me to get serious. With the start of her summer vacation Donna was available and she really knew how to run the roller. There were some sales made during the summer, but I never recorded them. My glass sheets were still small and oblong as the hot glass was still poured directly on the table and rolled out.

Pretty soon Donna would have to return to her real job, so by September of 1977 I needed a rolling machine to replace her. Enter Ray Biesecker and Hurley Lee Bowman. Ray mounted a hydraulic cylinder under my rolling table that would push the roller and its carriage in either direction. The hydraulic cylinder was operated by a flow control valve, which I could kick with my foot. Hurley Lee, who owned a machine shop, designed and built a hopper into which I could pour a measured amount of hot glass, kick the flow control valve, which launched the roller carriage assembly and activated a mechanical device that raised the hopper and allowed the hot glass to drop in front of the roller. It sounds a bit complicated, but by golly it worked. Hurley Lee also made many of the machined parts in my roller and table setup.

So in the fall of 1977 I became sole operator of an enterprise that had yet to go from red to black. I called my operation Corona Furnaces, my homage to Mr. LCT.

With a better furnace holding a larger crucible (Pot), an improved rolling table and new annealing oven with air flow, I was ready to go. My sheets were now a respectable 12” X 16” (or so), which meant I was really in business….sort of, but more on that later.

I was now adding colorants to my lead based batch and started to produce a range of interesting yellows and some nice greens, all with nice ring mottles. Paul Crist came into the frame again and instantly recognized where and how they could be used. Cut into pieces they became the flower petals and leaves in his very high-end reproductions of Tiffany’s laburnum shades, in all of the sizes that Tiffany made. Paul has an engineer’s brain and an artist’s eye.

My customer list was a short one as my output was limited to about 20 lbs of glass per day. And there were those days where the crucible broke or the mottles just plain vanished. I felt it was better to stay under the radar rather than promise what I might not be able to deliver.

Moving on, I was working long days because I ran two melts per day to get my 20 lbs of glass. Every now and then the mottles would run and hide and leave me wondering where they went. I made quite a bit of colored glass without any or very little opacity and or mottles and that was continuing to wear on me, but there were good days too when the glass behaved and I was pleased with the results.

In 1982 things started to change. My customers were mostly involved in the reproduction of Tiffany Studios originals and the market for those originals took a breather. The run-up in prices for authentic Tiffany Studios lamps at the New York auction houses came to a halt, perhaps in part due to a few dealers or individuals who replaced the original makers tag with one reading Tiffany Studios. My sales dropped like a rock. I continued to experiment for awhile longer, making some of the best glass I’ve ever made, but without sales the demise of my business was a foregone conclusion. So sometime in mid 1983, I shut down Corona Furnaces forever and moved on.

Charles Dickens wrote: “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times", which succinctly expresses my experiences making glass. But all in all I’m glad I did it, even though the outcome was not the one I had hoped for. Still there are a lot of nice lamp shades out there with my glass in them and a little bit of me too.