UNESCO adds Czech glass-blown Christmas beads to ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list

Photo: Jaroslava Mannová / Czech Radio

The holiday season just got a little merrier in Poniklá, a village nestled in the foothills of the Krkonoše Mountains. The traditional blown-glass and beaded Christmas decorations that it is famous for has just been added to UNESCO’s celebrated list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Poniklá, a village named after a kind of songbird that once densely populated the forested slopes, dates back to the 14th century. For hundreds of years, it was a centre of weaving. That began to change in the late 19th century, when a unique glass-making technology – the craft of blowing hollow beads through glass tubes – made its way to the village, thanks to love (so the story goes).

Photo: Dominika Bernáthová / Czech Radio

A glassblower named Hejna from the city of Jablonec nad Nisou fell in love with a local girl, settled in Poniklá and recruited some weavers to help blow glass beads, decorated with traces of silver and gold. Over time, the craft became more widespread in the village, and further processing was added to glass bead blowing: silver coating, cutting and threading.

In 1902, an entrepreneur named Stanislav Horna founded the first glass bead blowing company in Poniklá, which operated on the principle of internal subcontracting: the owner supplied raw materials to craftspeople, who returned semi-finished products for further processing. The beads were then sent to independent cutters and threaders. The finished beads went back to Horna’s company to be packaged and shipped.

Photo: Ivana Bernáthová / Czech Radio

Marek Kulhavy is head of the company Rautis, which continues in the unique tradition, just officially recognised by the United Nations on Thursday after a process lasting several years.

“First, we melt a glass tube over the burner, which we then put into the mould, and blow air with our feet and form the bead tube. That’s how it’s been done here since the second half of the 19th century.

“We took over the tradition from the Horna family and make the pearls and ornaments the same way. People hand down our Christmas decorations from generation to generation. Each has a story and becomes a kind of family chronicle. It is tricky work in terms of the manual dexterity, but definitely worth it.”

Photo: Dominika Bernáthová / Czech Radio

At its height, from the early 20th century until the First World War, there were some 400 glass bead makers in and around Poniklá. Several companies in Jablonec exported the beads around the world, for use primarily in bijouterie and decorating garments.

Originally, blown glass beads were mostly used to decorate folk costumes in Germany, Austria and elsewhere. Following a crisis in bead sales – in part because a Japanese competitor was flooding the market with copies, a new product was introduced in 1912: glass bead Christmas ornaments, newly fashionable in Central Europe.

The process of blowing and decorating ornaments, though done on a larger scale, has changed little since then. Today, Poniklá is the only place in the world where the traditional craft of glass bead, hand-manufacturing has been preserved.

It is managed by Rautis, where tourists can watch the entire process: how beads are blown through glass tubes, then silver coated, coloured and cut, and finally assembled into Christmas ornaments.

In all, some 600 types are on offer, along with creative hobby sets that let enthusiast try their hand at the craft at home. Advanced ornament makers can also order glass beads and other materials to make ornaments of their own design.

Author: Brian Kenety
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