A Clear View of Steuben Glass

Of all the categories covered in these columns over the past months, art glass is among the most varied. Across the years, hundreds of makers have come and gone, utilizing their skills and imagination to leave imprints of various size. Among all of those, Steuben surely stands out as one of the greats. While many storied glassmakers have faltered or failed to remain relevant in their offerings - Waterford is an example - Steuben continues to command premium prices and a strong following among collectors. Here's some background.

The coming of the 20th century served as a now-or-never impetus for many entrepreneurs, including the two founders of Steuben. The company began as a partnership between noted glass engraver T.G. Hawkes and art glass manufacturer Frederick Carder. The idea of applying art to glass rather than just design and color wasn't new, but the idea that it could be produced both in quality and quantity was quite novel.

By 1918, WWI was drawing to a close and American businesses were once again focusing on consumer wants and needs. Recognizing this, the firm of Corning Glass Works of Corning, New York acquired Steuben, thus enabling the firm to realize its potential as a luxury brand of the first order. Today Corning is a multi-national technology company, best known to consumers for its Corningware and Pyrex brands. Interestingly, it was also the developer of Gorilla Glass, that extra-hard stuff that enabled Apple to introduce its nearly bulletproof I-Phones not so many years ago. But back to Steuben.

In 1932, Steuben developed its own signature glass, a highly refractive type that emits a dazzling array of colors when light passes through it. It was also much stronger than its delicate appearance, enabling it to be manipulated and engraved with extra vigor. Although reconfigured a few years ago to be lead-free, this type of glass remains a touchstone of all Steuben products.

So enamored with this new glass were Steuben executives that they purged all colored glass from the Steuben line-up the following year. The emphasis was now on sculptured glass and designs with an architectural flair. This new approach turned out to be just the thing. Despite the Depression, Steuben opened its first store in New York City in 1934. For those with the resources to indulge, it was a fantasyland of crystal imagination, hailed by the New York Times for the setting it projected.

From there, new collections, new stores and many awards followed. The mid-century period witnessed a move away from functional pieces to more pure art glass forms. This opened the door to wider artistic expression and hundreds of new designs were added to the Steuben line. Also beginning at that time was a trend towards Steuben items serving as gifts between diplomats and heads-of-state, a development that Steuben artfully promoted and used to its advantage. Among the many grateful recipients of such gifts over the years were Queen Elizabeth II, Premier Chou En-Lai of China, Prime Minister Lester Pearson of Canada, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Glittering crystal trophies with the Steuben imprint became another highly visible aspect of Steuben's business. Gorgeous creations were made for the America's Cup yacht races, the IndyCar series, and Major League Baseball along with many others.

In recent years, some changes have overtaken the firm, including its sale and subsequent repurchase by Corning and the closing of its Corning, NY factory in favor of licensed production. The Steuben of today focuses on special commissions, decor, stem and barware, and gift items. It has also reintroduced some of its most iconic designs, sold mostly online at three- and four-figure prices.

Original Steuben pieces from 1903-1932 are most easily identified by an acid-engraved fleur-de-lis with a STEUBEN imprint in block letters. Variations of this imprint have been used ever since. Whatever the mark, authentic Steuben pieces are always highly sought and will likely remain so for years to come.

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