Today lampworkers have been labeled artisans. I often describe some lampworking styles as "painting with glass" when a scene is made that is reminiscent of a painting. Lampwork landscapes are a great example. And it truly is a beautiful kind of artwork to behold. (see the example above from MyJoyfulCorner)
So, what about lampwork beads? Well, there are two types of lampwork beads: Artisan made and what has been coined as imported or manufactured lampwork.
Artisan made lampwork is handmade by the artisan with great care and detail. These beads are properly kiln annealed (kept hot for the required time, and slowly cooled to realign the crystal structure properly). This tempers the glass making it stronger and more durable. Care is also taken to properly clean the bead release from the hole. **Please note, not all artisan lampwork will be kiln annealed, and should be labeled as blanket annealed if that is how they are made.
Artisan beads are unique often one-of-a-kind items which are used as focals in a design or creation. Some are made as matching sets. And all are well done and beautiful works of art.
The artisan lampwork community is also very knowledgeable in proper safety and working conditions. Molten glass gives off carbon monoxide and other dangerous fumes depending on what the glass is made from. Some glasses actually have metal in them, and these fumes can be unhealthy to inhale.
We are also very aware of the dangers of looking directly at the flare which occurs when glass is held in the torch flame. This can do severe damage to the eyes, and we buy special glasses or other eye safety gear to block those harmful rays. (the photo of the Bench Mount Shield is the type of eye safety I use)
Imported lampwork is still handmade. But we call them "manufactured" because of how they are made. Manufactured beads have come a long way in the last few years. But if is very important the buyers understand what they are purchasing, and the differences between artisan lampwork and manufactured lampwork.
The main "flaw" (for lack of a better word) of manufactured beads is the fact that they are not properly kiln annealed. You may often see visible cracks in the beads. However, sometimes these cracks will not show right away, but will appear later when the beads are mishandled or stressed in some way, like being dropped. Proper cleaning is another clue to help identify manufactured beads.
Manufactured bead | Artisan Lampwork
The above bead, on the left, is a great example of a manufactured bead that was not properly cleaned. You'll notice the hole is full of bead release, click on it to enlarge it for a better view.
So now you're probably wondering how in the world you can possibly tell whether or not you're buying artisan lampwork or imported lampwork. Even at craft and art fairs there are still many unscrupulous people who will buy imports and pass them off as their own.
Here are just a couple tips when searching for artisan quality lampwork beads:
- Price: Artisan lampwork is always more expensive due to the time it takes to create a bead, the price of the glass, and the equipment/overhead cost to make quality annealed beads.
- Volume: Immediate supply is a good gauge. Lampwork beads take time, and high volume may indicate the seller may not have made the beads themselves. Ask the seller how many sets they have of the same design/color. Chances are that some beads may be imports if they have many of the exact same sets of beads. This is just my thought, and in no way is a guarantee that the item is or is not made by that person. Look the person directly in the eye and ask them if they made the bead you want to purchase.
- Quality. The bead hole should be nice and clean. There should be no visible cracks or sharp edges. (Please remember that someone just starting out in lampworking may not make "perfect" beads, but they'll make up for that in enthusiasm, which you'll feel when you talk to them!)