The History of Burmese Glass
Fenton is an artistic glass company that was founded in 1905, and although it got its start in an art glass called carnival glass, among the many types of glass it produces is Burmese glass. The notable thing about Fenton is that all its glass products are handmade and artistic. Currently, third- and fourth- generation Fenton family members run the company and employ skilled glassworkers and decorators to make fantastic designs, both old and new.
Burmese glass is a type of art glass sporting a unique, opaque color that ranges from pink to yellow, typically from top to bottom. Art glass is made to be decorative, and Burmese glass can be produced in all sorts of shapes and forms, although it is most commonly used as ornamental vases or lamps, or as decorative tabletop items. It also comes unlined, which increases its attractiveness and value.
Burmese glass originated during the Victorian period in England, approximately at the end of the 19th century. The name is rumored to have come from Queen Victoria herself, who claimed that the glass reminded her of a Burmese sunset (Burmese meaning from or of Burma, a large country in Southeast Asia). Burmese glass was so popular because of its remarkably beautiful coloring.
Many art glass companies produced Burmese glass in this period, including Webb, Mt. Washington, Gunderson, and of course, Fenton. Burmese glass was one of the most popular and impressive types of art glass in Victorian England, along with Peachblow, Agata, Amberina, and Pomona. Burmese glass could be given a shiny finish or a duller matte finish, and the latter ultimately proved to be more popular with the Victorians, so it is what has survived to present-day.
Burmese glass was originally developed by a man named Frederick Shirley in the 1880s. He discovered it when he added some minerals to uranium oxide. The mixture also included calcium fluoride, and resulted in a single-layer glass. Shirley quickly recognized the value of such a discovery and patented it in 1885. For a time, his Burmese glass formula was exclusive to the Mt. Washington art glass company, but they began to license it out to others, like England’s Thomas Webb and Sons. Reportedly, Queen Victoria was impressed with the Burmese tea set she had requested, so when it came time for Webb and Sons to introduce their line-up of Burmese glass items, they called it Queen’s Burmese Ware in honor of Queen Victoria.
The way they produced Burmese glass was by taking translucent white glass (i.e. not fully clear) and adding uranium oxides. This was what made the glass have the spectrum of bright yellow colors. To get the rosy, pink spectrum, they heated and re-heated pure gold in the glass. In order to get the proper array of colors, they used intense heat across the body of the glass. A combination of the above techniques created the Burmese glass that became so popular, and it particularly appealed to the higher classes, because they were more likely to be able to afford such an elegant art glass piece.
Another technique used to create Burmese was called coralene. In this process, the glassworker would fasten small beads to the surface of the glass with an enamel paste. When bright light passed through the beads and reflected off of the paste, the result would be a glowing effect in the overall art glass. There were occasional instances where they would also apply gilded decorations, but for the most part, the appeal and attraction of Burmese glass lay in its elegant simplicity. It was still impressive with a nice range of colors and a fancy shape. In the case of Burmese glass, restraint from such excesses kept it both a bit more affordable and in high demand.
One issue that arose with Burmese glass was the fact that the manufacturing techniques could often be replicated in different factories, to the point where, sometimes, it could be next-to-impossible to determine where a certain work came from. For this reason, they began adding labels to the glass, sometimes permanent ones. It became even more confusing when other factories jumped on board and produced similar glass products of their own.
Mt. Washington, still the premiere Burmese glassmaker in the early 1900s, decided that it was too expensive to continue producing Burmese glass and ceased its manufacture there. However, other companies continued to produce Burmese, including the Fenton art glass company. In the early 1970s, they reproduced a lot of the older specimens of Burmese glass, while marking on each that it was merely a reproduction to distinguish their newer pieces from the originals.
Because of its beauty, Burmese glass is a popular type of art glass for collectors and art glass connoisseurs. It is unfortunate that the original Burmese glass utilized uranium, because it is difficult for any glass company to gain access to uranium in today’s nuclear age. As a result, a glass company like Fenton cannot fully replicate an original Burmese glass work of art. Of course, this is fine for collectors: because of the rarity of the original Burmese glass, and the inability of modern glass companies to reproduce them, they are valuable and highly sought-after specimens.
However, Fenton is still one of the premiere makers of Burmese glass, and it is a common destination for collectors.Burmese art glass still remains a popular and treasured type of art glass by people all over the world, both for its fascinating historical significance and its timeless beauty. It is collected, auctioned, traded, displayed, and prized. There are a wide variety of Burmese art glass pieces available, from ruffle bowls to decorated vases to fairy lamps. Fenton continues to be a major producer of truly amazing pieces of Burmese art glass.