How a Millefiori pendant is made (technique and history)

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Published: 22nd March 2010
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The design of Murano Millefiori pendants originated in the middle of the 1800's, but they have evolved from a technique that goes back much further. The basic technique of producing concentric ring patterns has been seen in glassware from Ancient Rome and Alexandria. The technique was further enhanced at Murano during the Renaissance period, eventually evolving into the modern techniques that make Millefiori pendants, and other Millefiori jewelry, so popular today.

Many glass working techniques involve manipulating a blob of molten glass on the end of a metal rod. Ancient glass workers would knead a blob of colored glass into a rod shape, and then dip it into molten glass of different colors, so that layers of different colored glass would be built up. A cross section of the rod would show a pattern of concentric colored rings, and this was exploited by slicing the rod into disks, and then fusing them onto glassware to form a pattern.

These rods are called Murrine, and it's believed the technique for making them was brought to Venice by Byzantine glass workers, fleeing Constantinople after it's defeat in the 4th crusade. Shortly after, Venice's glass workers were confined to the island of Murano due to the fire risk from their kilns. Having so many skilled glass workers in a confined area led to Murano becoming a center of excellence for artistic glassware, they went on to dominate the market for several hundred years.

Around the end of the 15th Century, Marietta Barovier, daughter of the famous Master glass worker Angelo Barovier, pioneered a technique that formed a star pattern in the center of the design. The molten glass rod was pressed into a metal mold to make it into a star shaped rod, which was then fired in a cylindrical mold packed with glass powder of a different color. This restored the cylindrical shape, with the star pattern embedded in the center.

Different mold patterns were added, leading to the petal shaped designs that characterize Murano Millefiori glass. Murrine are quite short and fat when first made, typically about 6 inches long and 3 inches in diameter, they are then drawn out to make a longer rod with a smaller diameter. By repeatedly cutting the rod, and drawing it out again, it's possible to scale down the design as small as desired.

During the Renaissance peak of Murano glass production, Murrine were mostly used for making decorative spheres, glass pearls, and walking canes. Classic Millefiori jewelry arrived later, but not before a dark period in Murano's history.

In the 18th Century, Napoleon imposed stiff taxes on Murano glass, he wanted to crush the industry for political reasons. Only a handful of kilns remained open, doing what they could to pass on the glass making skills to successive generations.

Foreign control of the area finally weakened in the early 1800's, and Murano's glass workers exploited the political distractions of the period to rebuild their industry. It was in this period that Murano Millefiori designs started to appear, in the form of Millefiori pendants and other Millefiori jewelry.

Millefiori is an Italian word meaning 'a thousand flowers'. It first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1849, this gives an indication of when the rebirth of the technique became common knowledge outside Venice's glass making circles.

Millefiori pendants are made by taking slices from thin drawn out Murrine, and arranging them in circular patterns in a disk shaped mold. The gaps are filled in with glass powder before firing in a kiln to fuse the whole design into a single piece of glass. Similar techniques are used for other Millefiori jewelry items, in particular cufflinks and earings. Millefiori glass is also used for other ornaments, such as bowels and plates.

The molds at the heart of Millefiori glass making are fixed, but the designs they produce are completely unique. The colors used, the number of layers added, the way the Murrine are drawn, not to mention the liquid nature of the molten glass, means that each Murrine has it's own individual characteristics. Then the cut sections of Murrine are selected and placed by hand to form the overall Millefiori design, with the final firing adding its own little element of randomness into the myriad of Millefiori patterns. No two pieces of Millefiori glass are identical, adding to the attraction of the beautiful colorful designs.

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