Nový Bor – a town in the heart of the Bohemian glass industry

Ajeto glassworks, photo: Libor Kukal

The history of Nový Bor in North Bohemia- is indelibly linked with the art of glass-making. The tradition of glass making in the region goes back more than seven hundred years. Thanks to abundant stocks of wood –used as both fuel and raw material -and crushed quartz used in the melting of glass, the region provided ideal conditions for the craft. Glassworks in different areas date back to medieval times and have been traced due to various archaeological finds –such as small pieces of melted glass and fragments of moulds -in places where old glassworks used to stand.

Ajeto glassworks,  photo: Libor Kukal
From the early 17th century Bohemian glass masters were much sought after for their skills. The towns of Kamenický Šenov and Nový Bor were famed for their glass-blowers, painters, cutters and engravers, exporting their products to royal houses around Europe as well as to America and Asia. The first schools in the art of glass- making appeared in the second half of the 19th century. The one founded in 1856 in Kamenický Šenov is considered to be the oldest institution of its type in Europe. In 1870 a similar school was established in Nový Bor. Both were pioneers in the art of glass making and both exist to this day.

After the communist take-over in 1948 the authorities merged dozens of small glass companies into large state-owned businesses. Despite the centralized management, which ended private business activities and home workshops, the well-established craft flourished. Bohemian glass was one of the country’s leading export articles and Czech glass blowers and designers scored great successes at prestigious exhibitions around the world.

New windows of opportunity opened up after the fall of communism in 1989, and although the glass making industry felt the impact of the global crisis and some companies were forced to close, the glass-making tradition survived. Today Nový Bor boasts one of the most successful glass design companies in the world – Lasvit which together with the famous Ajeto glassworks in Lindava delivers Bohemian glass to demanding clients the world over. The glass industry is once again booming and demand is so high that the local glass schools find it hard to meet demand for talented fresh graduates.

Jiří Suchý is a glass master at the School of Glass Art and Design in Nový Bor, which has approximately 400 students.

“I think our graduates have an edge over student abroad, because they are highly specialized in their field.”

“The glass making companies in the region are in contact with us all the time letting us know their needs. Right now there is a big demand for engravers, blowers and mould producers. Practically every week we get a call from this or that company looking for a suitable graduate.”

The school has its own workshops with small melting furnaces, painting-on-glass classes, classes for engravers and cutters and is the last school of its kind in the country which teaches the art of making moulds. Glass master Pavel Fille says the secret of the schools success lies in specialization.

“We believe strongly in specialization, so the way things work at our school is that students focus on a certain field –such as glass blowing, engraving, painting or vitrage. Abroad you will find that students are expected to learn a bit of everything. It’s a broader scope. But I think our graduates have an edge, because they are highly specialized in their field.”

Jiří Suchý says that during the lean years –at the time of the global crisis - interest in the profession dwindled and it was largely young people from families with a history in glass-making who enrolled at the school. Today, as the glass making business is once again peaking, and companies are offering talented graduates exceptional opportunities, young people from further afield come to the town to learn the centuries-old craft. Sixteen-year-old Lenka says she saw engravers at work on a school trip to the town glass works and decided this was what she wanted to do. After just three weeks into her first year, she knows she made the right decision.

Photo: Tomáš Mařas
“I don’t find it too difficult – you just have to get the hang of it. And this is something I really enjoy.”

Lenka has two and a half days of theory a week and the same amount of time is spend in the workshop. Her teacher says that in three weeks’ time she has made as much progress as others make in two months. He predicts that when she graduates in three years’ time she will have her pick of jobs at glass making companies in the region.

Glass master Jiří Suchý, who likewise fell in love with his profession at first sight on a visit to the Nový Bor glass works, says he is not worried about these kids’ future prospects.

“You know that is the way things are in business. There are cycles of prosperity and decline so you always have ups and downs in every trade. So, we had a global crisis recently and some companies suffered, but that is nothing unusual. It is the way things are. But that doesn’t mean the end of the glass making business – not in a million years.”

Glass artist Marek Effmert could testify to that. A successful graduate in the field he is now one of the bright lights of the Lasvit company. I asked him to explain what it is that he does.

“I receive the design from the designers and I have to think about the best way to make it. So I get the design, go to the studio and start prototyping the piece – whether it is a chandelier, sculpture or trophy.”

“There are cycles of prosperity and decline so you always have ups and downs in every trade. But that doesn’t mean the end of the glass making business – not in a million years.”

So you actually blow glass yourself…

“Yes, either blow or just shape, it depends on whether it is a solid sculpture or a blown piece. It depends on the design, but yes, the first prototypes are in my hands.”

What qualities does a good glass-blower need?

“That’s a tricky question. I guess a little bit of imagination, and a little bit of luck for the first prototyping and some skills in glass-blowing – you cannot do it in the first year of training, you need to have some experience, you need to know some techniques –either which are used worldwide or in a certain place. The studios are different around the world and you have to adapt to the studio where you are working and the glass blowers you are working with. So all those things have to connect nicely and then you can do good work.”

Is it physically demanding work?

“Yes, it depends on the size of the piece, but if you are doing something big, something heavy, yes, then you get tired.”

What do you like most about glass-blowing?

“I think the heat and the smoke, that’s always nice, and I like the people around me.

We are a good team, nice people, helping each other and doing fun stuff. I feel like I am playing. I do not take this as work really. It feels like play and that is kind of nice.”

Do you not dream of making your own designs?

Peninsula Hotel in Paris | Photo: Lasvit
“I do. Before I started working for Lasvit I used to do a lot of my own stuff and from time to time on Saturdays and Sundays – when the studio is free – I come in and work on my own things because I miss that. Out of nostalgia.”

You are Lasvit’s best glass-blower. What gives you an edge over everyone else? What makes you special?

“I guess it is experience. I used to travel a lot and worked in different studios all over the world and I know a lot of techniques used in different places so I can use them for pieces that we do here for Lasvit.”

You are recently back from London’s Design Week where you presented Lasvit’s work. What are the latest trends in glass-making?

“I think the simplicity of the glass pieces, simple shapes, not too many colours, simple, easy lines and that’s about it.”