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Symphony of Color: Collectible Contemporary Marbles

Symphony of Color: Collectible Contemporary Marbles – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2001

by Mark Block

How often have we heard marbles referred to simply as “child’s playthings?” For those most intimately involved in the hobby of marble collecting most likely more times than we would care to recall. However, I can say it was just that, the first thing that came to mind for me when I first saw these diminutive spheres many years ago. What a difference a decade or two makes!

While the history of marbles and marble games of some form can be traced back thousands of years to ancient civilizations, it is only during today’s generations that a hobby has formed around the collecting, documenting, studying and preserving of these varied spheres. For over twenty-five years I have been surrounded and exposed to the world of antique-handmade marbles and more recently American machine-made marbles. And while these objects were meant to be nothing more than children’s toys they have taken on an increasingly larger collectible life with a growing community during the past quarter-century. This community involves hundreds of interested collectors, both serious and novice, not unlike other forms of glass such as paperweights.

Collectors gather at regional marble meets throughout the United States, sometimes for a week at a time, and at local clubs to buy, sell and trade both common and extremely rare examples of all types of marbles and marble related ephemera. These include antique-handmade German swirls, sulphides, clambroths, Indians, lutzes, onionskins, and others from the late-1800s to the early-1900s that can sell for thousands of dollars. And during the past ten years, a burgeoning collectible market has developed for machine-made examples. These were manufactured in the United States primarily from 1920 through the 1960s by various marble companies, including, Akro Agate, Master Marble, Christiansen Agate, and others as well, with many of these companies fine and rare examples bringing hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

Now, with the maturing of the Internet, collectors can simply surf their way from tens of different on-line sites dedicated to specializing in marble collecting and dealing to auction services and collector message boards. This is quite a stark change from 25-years ago when the Marble Collectors Society of America incorporated to become the first nonprofit organization dedicated to the study, education and documentation of the hobby of marbles and marble collecting. A quarter century ago there were no marble meets, just one small book on the subject and only a handful of collectors. Today, books and articles abound, clubs meet regularly and shows entice collectors to show their treasures and add to their collections. All this has brought with it the embracing of the latest addition to both the marbles collecting community and art glass world—the explosion of artists and craftsmen working in studio glass settings. Artists now create some of the most gorgeous and unique contemporary works of art in the spherical form, solely for decorative and ornamental purposes. These artists/craftsmen make use of both centuries old techniques, state-of-the-art computer imaging and formal schooling in glass blowing and sculpture to bring their concepts from paper to glass in ways unimaginable only twenty-five years ago. For that is when it all began.

In 1975, in Marin County California two individuals who would later go on to make substantial contributions to the American Studio Glass Movement got together and built a two-sided glory hole and furnace in which they crafted small 7/8″ swirl style marbles. Richard Marquis and Ro Purser, both dressed in medieval garbs for a Renaissance faire brought the first handmade contemporary glass marbles to market. [next page] Highly prized by collectors for their rarity, Marquis and Purser went on to craft through the 1980s what are still recognized today as some of the most distinctive contemporary spheres in the world. The pairs Murrini spheres are true works of fine art. The intricate silhouette canes and high level of technical craftsmanship required to create a pattern that has its roots in centuries Old Italian techniques can be seen in these pieces.

As interest grew among glass artists in the late-1970s, and single-artist glass studios, mainly constructed by the artists themselves, began to become more common, a small ripple began to occur that would become a major wave in the world of art glass in the mid- to-late-1990s. Artists including Dudley Giberson, Jody Fine, Steven Maslach, Josh Simpson and Joe St. Clair became some of the first craftsmen to actively pursue crafting relatively small art glass spheres. With the 1980s well underway, Geoffrey Beetem, Fritz Lauenstein, Mark Matthews, Tony Parker, David Salazar, and Rolf and Genie Wald were on the cusp of a greater explosion in the field. The collecting community continued to mature and became noticeable as more and more artists used the spherical form to tell a story, one that has truly become a symphony in glass.

Today, the creativity, use of color theory and exceptional technical ability of artists like Mark Matthews has taken the art of the crafted sphere to levels unheard of a short decade ago. Matthews’ landmark Population Portrait series, black and white geometric graal sphere’s, superior filigrana works and unique animal skin spheres set the standard for all artists striving to achieve the perfect sphere. By simply looking at Matthews body of work the collector or interested public gains a sense that what was once a child’s plaything has earned a rightful place next to their older, more established cousin, the decorative and ornamental paperweight.

While the art glass paperweight collecting market is matured, it should be looked upon as one that in many ways gave rise to the extensive artistic and technical achievement sought and accomplished by the finest artists working in spheres today. Much of the appeal of the sphere to the art glass collector is in the viewers ability to pick up the piece, rotate it and look at all sides and aspects of the artists work. Each piece must be able to withstand being turned and examined from all directions, from top pole to bottom pontil, signature and all! The classic art glass paperweight, by its very nature encourages you to pick it up, view it and place it back down. Not so with the sphere, for regardless of the way you display it, you’ll find the angle is always different, the view unique and your reaction never the same twice.

With hundreds of artists and craftsmen working in the sphere form today, there are tens of styles to consider in assembling a comprehensive collection. The classic cane- or rod-cut method in which the artist from a long cane creates a piece formed from smaller rods to achieve the desired swirl, established or random design. To the torch work method, one in which the artist/craftsmen uses either soft moretti glass or the harder borosilicate glass to handcraft each individual one-off piece over an oxygen/gas torch. Each method has its own unique qualities and you will be truly amazed at the seemingly limitless possibilities that can be achieved by the artist.

As the art of the sphere continues to mature and the number of serious collectors expands the demand for the finest art glass spheres will continue to grow as well. However, we are left to ponder what impact the full emergence of this truly unique form of American art can achieve. What if notable master glass craftsmen of the paperweight art such as Paul Stankard, Rick Ayotte, Bob Banford, Christopher Buzzini, Ken Rosenfeld and others used their extensive skills and creativity to craft a sphere, round by its very nature rather than a flat base paperweight? Would we then see the works of all sphere artists and craftsmen take the next leap to a level never even imagined a decade ago? Let’s hope the challenge of the sphere, where these artists pick up the most volume per unit entices others to make a significant contribution to enhance the body of work of the American Studio Glass Movement in ways not yet fathomed by collectors or even the artists themselves.

Mark Block is founder and President of Blockglass Ltd. and author of the recently released Schiffer Publishing Ltd. book, Contemporary Marbles and Related Art Glass. As a representative to numerous studio glass artists/craftsmen and studios, his Internet Gallery makes works available to the public and can be reached directly by e-mail,, or by writing Blockglass Ltd., 60 Ridgeview Ave., Trumbull, CT 06611
For information regarding the Marble Collectors Society of America write the Society directly at MCSA, P.O. Box 222, Trumbull, CT 06611

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