6) Museum in Jablonec tells story of world-renowned Bohemian crystal glass and jewelry

Hand-crafted Bohemian crystal-glass and glass jewelry have a centuries old tradition taken to new heights by cutting-edge technology. Stunning crystal glass lighting installations, art works and glasses grace palaces, luxury hotels, public spaces and private residences worldwide.  Bohemian glass makers pioneered a technique for replicating the look of precious stones, producing cut-glass crystals that closely resembled diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds sought after the world over. The Museum of Glass and Jewelry in Jablonec nad Nisou traces the history of Bohemian glass making over seven centuries.  

The first glass furnace was lit in Bohemia in 1376 and in the 1550’s a major glass industry was founded in the north, centered around the cities of Jablonec nad Nisou, Stanovsko, Bedrichov,  Železný Brod, Nový Bor and several others. The northern regions of Bohemia were rich on quartz deposits and the region’s deep pine forests, offered an affordable supply of wood for heating the large furnaces required to melt glass. These basic assets helped to establish a tradition of Bohemian crystal glass and glass costume jewelry that gained world-wide recognition.

Photo: Magdalena Kašubová,  Radio Prague International

The first written records of Bohemian crystal glass exports date back to 1725 when Czech glassmakers were commissioned to make exclusive pieces for the palaces of Louis XV in Versailles and Fontainebleau. Word of their beauty and elegance spread quickly and soon the royal courts from Turkish Sultan Osman III to Russian Empress Yelisaveta (Elizabeth) were filled with Bohemian Crystal.

Bohemian glass artisans soon pioneered a technique for replicating the look of precious and semi-precious stones, producing cut-glass crystals that resembled diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.

The technique changed the art of glassmaking all over the world and made Bohemia a world superpower in the field. Soon glassmakers in other countries began to emulate the work of Bohemian artisans. From then on, Bohemian crystal and crystal glass costume jewelry become the region’s trademark products.

Photo: Magdalena Kašubová,  Radio Prague International

The history of Bohemian glass making is documented in the Museum of Glass and Jewelry in Jablonec nad Nisou. Its director Milada Valečková took us around the building.

“Today, the museum is housed in an Art Nouveau building dating back to 1904, the former seat of a glass export company. We acquired it after its confiscation from a German family in 1949. There was also a Jewish synagogue nearby, which was burned down during Crystal Night. The main building underwent a complete renovation in 2003-4, when new exhibition rooms were created. In 2020, we added a super modern glass extension to the building which creates a nice symbolic link between the past and the present. Concerts, social events and even weddings can be held here.”

Milada Valečková | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

The Museum of Glass and Jewelry is divided into two main sections – crystal glass and costume jewelry. The collection of glass items on display is the second largest in the Czech Republic, second only to the Museum of Art and Industry in Prague. It presents the history of glass making in the whole of Bohemia with a special emphasis on northern Bohemia. The other section presents a unique collection of designer jewels, hundreds of thousands of beads, buttons and other glass-made fashion accessories.

Milada Valečková points out the highlights, starting with some of the oldest glass pieces on display.

Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

“Here we have replicas of Venetian glass from the 16th century. We borrowed them from the Museum of Applied Arts in Prague. We have glass here from the 14th and 15th centuries. The first glassworks opened in the 14th century in northern Bohemia, and glassworks have been operating here ever since. We created the glass exhibition that you see here in 2004. It is called the Magic Garden because the layout of the space is similar to that of a French garden – with all its dominant features. There is a glass bell and a beautiful fountain, which in 1925 won the Grand Prix in Paris.

"The magic of the place is enhanced by light and poetry as visitors wander from dark to brightly lit-up sections on their journey from an anonymous goblet by an unknown artist to modern pieces made with the help of cutting-edge technology by leading glass studios. The Magic Garden covers seven centuries of glass making and the exposition is arranged chronologically.”

Photo: Magdalena Kašubová,  Radio Prague International

In addition to working with glass beads, Bohemian costume jewellers also pioneered a technique for replicating the look of pearls, which were enormously popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Instead of using glass, jewelry makers would cut mother of pearl into beads, which were then shaped and polished until they resembled lustrous pearls.

Beads rivalling those produced in Venice were strung into brightly colored necklaces, filigreed settings boasted singular glass stones blazing in emerald green, sapphire blue, amethyst purple, and ruby red. The Hollywood film studios frequently ordered these exclusive pieces for their productions as did European film makers for their historic movies. So how have fashions in glass costume jewelry changed over the years?

Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

“Taste is linked to the times. That is most visible in the Art Nouveau section. There are a lot of ornate pieces inspired by the Orient. Today, there is minimal demand for gilded and painted glass, clients want cut glass, with bold, modern, clean lines.”

Among the curiosities on display is the longest necklace in the world:

“Here we have the longest necklace in the world, which is listed in the Guinness World Book of Records. It was created in 1994, measures 220 meters and is made of 9,000 beads. It was created just for the fun of it during a happening event organized by the town hall as a celebration of the town’s jewelry-making tradition. However it is not made of glass, but plastic and wood. A glass necklace that size could not hang here because the wall would not support its weight.”

Longest necklace in the world | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

The museum is now trying to get the Czech glass making-tradition officially recognized by UNESCO.

“The museum, in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, is working to get Bohemian hand - made glass officially recognized and added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. The nomination was filed jointly by six countries: France, Germany, Hungary, Spain, Finland and the Czech Republic. Czech glass-making is unique in that we are skilled in all the hand-made glass techniques that exist, both hot and cold - smelting, blowing, engraving, grinding, painting, as well as the production of costume jewelry. In 2020 the tradition of blown-glass beads, decorated with traces of silver and gold that are used to make Christmas decorations was added to the UNESCO list. The tradition was established by a glassblower from the city of Jablonec nad Nisou and over time further processing was added to glass bead blowing: silver coating, cutting and threading, that is used to make a whole different kind of Christmas tree baubles.”

Photo: Magdalena Kašubová,  Radio Prague International

Whether or not the newest bid is successful, the fame of Bohemia’s glassmakers has spread far and wide and few visitors to the Czech Republic leave without a souvenir of crystal glass or glass jewelry.

“I am happy to say that before the pandemic we had about 40,000 visitors a year. And since we are planning to open an exhibition of glass Christmas decorations we expected the number of visitors to cross 50,000 this year. The pandemic slowed us down, but I expect that things will pick up again eventually. Many of our visitors – I would say around forty percent are from abroad. Most from Germany and Poland.”

The Museum of Glass and Jewelry in Jablonec nad Nisou is open every day with the exception of Mondays from 10 am to 6 pm. There is a café and a shop where you can buy glass, jewelry and publications on the art of Bohemian glass-making.