On the trail of handmade glass in Harrachov

The oldest glassworks in the world is located in Harrachov

The making of glass and jewellery by hand, a tradition which has survived for hundreds of years in the Liberec Region, draws thousands of tourists to the area each year. Radio Prague paid a visit to the oldest still-functioning glassworks in Bohemia, the Novosad Glass Factory, nestled in the Giant Mountains in the small town of Harrachov. The nowadays privately-owned Novosad & Son was founded in the 18th century, or possibly even earlier, on the former estate of the aristocratic Harrach family and remains fully functional, with everything preserved almost exactly as it was originally.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

The furnaces in Novosad have not stopped roaring in at least 312 years – not even the First or Second World Wars halted production in the factory. The first mention of the glassworks in the historical archives is from 1712, but it is clear from the records that they were founded even earlier.

The factory sprang up on the Jilemnice estate of the aristocratic Harrach family, which operated it until 1943, when they were forced to sell to Nazi Germany. After the communist coup of 1948, the glass manufacturer was nationalised and became one of the manufacturing plants belonging to the company Crystalex, which brought most formerly independent small Czech glassworks under one umbrella organisation.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

After the fall of communism in 1989, František Novosad bought the company, which nowadays is run by his son Petr.

Petr Novosad | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“Since then, we’ve been trying to recreate the lost glory of Harrachov glass. We mark our products with an H, three small crowns, and the year 1712, to make it clear that the glass is made by us. We participate in several international exhibitions every year – this year we were in Frankfurt and we are planning further exhibitions in Italy and France. We would also like to join Prague's Designblok festival in the autumn. We have created a new catalogue and new collections specially designed for the Czech market.”

Harrachov Glassworks | Photo: Draceane,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Wasp’s nests by hand

When we visit the factory, three furnaces are roaring at full capacity. We watch the glassmakers at work from an overhead walkway.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“Today we are making glasses to order for an American customer in New York. We’re using a special technique where we put a kind of decoration called a wasp's nest between the cup and the foot. It looks like a kind of twisted ball wrapped in pure gold leaf.”

We observe a glassmaker creating the wasp’s nests – seemingly effortlessly. He jokes that he knows what he’s doing a little after working at the factory for 30 years. Using scissors, a glasscutter, and other tools unknown to us laymen, he takes about three to four minutes to make one glass, which is then transported to the furnace on a special cable car, where another worker is waiting. Petr Novosad tells us that nowadays around 90 people work in the glass factory.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“Around 25 of those are glassblowers, while the others are helpers who either take the glass to the conveyor belt, for example, or help with production by closing the mould or taking the products away. After we’ve finished our part here at the foundry, the product goes for initial processing. It’s mostly women who do that, while here in the foundry where it’s hot, it’s mostly men.”

A single glass passes through the hands of 10 to 12 people before it is finished, and you’d be hard pressed to find any automation here – everything is done by hand.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

We walk past a group of women waiting for precisely the right moment to remove the glass from the flames. It is extremely hot in this room – and the warmest summer months haven’t even begun yet. We ask one woman how she finds working in such conditions.

“Do you want me to tell the truth? I sweat like a pig. Honestly, several times a day. To cool off, I put a wet cloth on my head and neck. But nothing can be done about it, the job simply requires it – even though there’s ventilation, you still sweat. But I try to look at it positively, as a kind of slimming treatment.”

The grinding mill

We continue on our way and head to the glass grinding plant. We find ourselves in a hall full of grinding machines, but today there is only one person operating them.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“This is the oldest building in the whole complex. The foundry where we were earlier is much newer, it was built after the war, but this grinding mill was built in 1895, still under the Harrach family. And the equipment is all original.”

The glass that is produced in Harrachov nowadays is most often exported to the USA, Italy, Scandinavia and other parts of Western Europe. But keeping a firm that uses handmade production afloat in the face of competition from automation is not easy. While around 2000 glasses are produced per day in Novosad, an automatic production line could make around 50 000 in the same amount of time. Most glass factories in the Liberec region were also hit hard by covid and high energy prices. Therefore, in addition to making glass, Novosad also tries to attract tourists to the factory – and not only for demonstrations of how hand-made production works.

Harrachov Glassworks | Photo: Draceane,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Treats for tourists

We’re now standing with Petr Novosad in the courtyard in front of the glassworks, where our tour ends.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“From here, tourists have several options for what to do next. Either you can visit our corporate glass store, where you can buy all the products that you've seen being made here, or you can go to the glass museum in the Manor House building. The first and second floors contain the largest collection of glass in the country from a single factory – there are a little over 5,000 exhibits, all of which come from our factory. Or if you’ve worked up an appetite, you can go to our restaurant, which has its own brewery. We brew three types of unfiltered and unpasteurised pilsner-type craft beers – a light lager, a dark lager, and a “glassmakers’ beer”, which is drunk by the glassblowers at the foundry.”

Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

Over 5,000 glassblowers, grinders, engravers, painters, jewellery manufacturers, artists and designers work in hundreds of factories, family workshops and studios throughout Czechia – but in the Liberec Region, glassmaking is one of the key industries. In 2023, Czech handmade glass was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

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