A common mistake new buyers and collectors of glass will sometimes make is to look at a piece of glass with a molded pattern and mistake it for glass onto which a pattern or design has been manually ‘cut.’ On occasion, too, if this error is brought to the attention of some dealers, they may even insist no misidentification has taken place. They will state that their description of a molded pattern as ‘cut’ is correct and base this perception on inaccurate glass nomenclature which may be found in many places elsewhere on the Internet. This type of 'identification' seems to be a conventionally accepted practice, though it may cause someone to eventually give a buyer incorrect information.
There are indeed considerable differences between molded and cut patterns on glass. Being aware of what those differences are can assist in sure and proper identification and help to prevent potentially costly mistakes being made, either when buying patterned glassware or offering it for sale.
Different Glass Formulas
From the very early beginnings of glass-making there were only two basic formulas for glass and these were fairly simple; a silica (sand or quartz) was heated with an alkaline flux (potash or soda). The type of glass desired depended on the formula used to make it. But neither if these two formulas could produce a glass as entirely suited for cutting and engraving as was a third glass formula containing oxide of lead developed by Englishman George Ravenscroft in 1676. Ravenscroft’s formula produced ‘flint glass’ AKA lead crystal.
Blown in the Mold Pattern Glass
Glass with a patterns molded into the surface has been made in the past in both the ‘flint’ and ‘non-flint’ formulas, with the former almost invariably used in earlier molded pattern glass. In America, early molded pattern glass was originally blown-molded, which combined glass blowing techniques with that of pattern molding. A glob of molten glass was placed into a hinged mold and blown to fill it. This arrangement was a fairly time consuming process but allowed for the impression of elaborate patterns to be repeated on additional pieces more quickly than would have been possible if hand-cutting the design each time. Blown-molded glass will have many of the same characteristics as press molded glass, with the additional trait of having indentations on the interior of a piece that correspond to the raised pattern on the outside surface.
Press Molded Pattern Glass
The first patent for machinery to produce press molded glass, or just ‘pressed glass,’ was granted in America in 1821. Within a brief period of time, using the flint glass formula, the pressed glass industry exploded into the feverish production of fancy patterned glassware. The American Civil War caused the eventual shortage of the lead needed for the flint formula, however, which slowed the ability during that time for continued production. But a new formula without the lead and suitable for pressing was developed and this new non-flint formula made even more elaborate patterns possible since it could be pressed more easily.
Cut and Engraved Glass
When patterns are cut onto the surface of a glass object by the hand of a skilled workman using powered cutting wheels only then does it become definable as ‘cut’ glass. Either a free-blown or molded shape can have its surface decorated with a pattern in this way. If the shape was free blown the piece will likely have a pontil mark, which is where the blow pipe was once attached. A pontil mark on cut glass will often be polished to remove its roughness and make it less noticeable. Often a polished pontil will have a lens-like look to it. Sometimes, too, a pontil mark will be decorated with its own cut design to further obscure it. Once you are become familiar with what a pontil mark looks like you will easily be able to recognize it on any piece of glass.
Cut glass has always been difficult to make and before the advent of modern powered cutting tools it was not a commonly available type of glass for any but those with the expendable means to buy it. Even using modern cutting tools, cut glass is still to a great degree, even today, reliant on the skill of the technician doing the cutting and so requires more time to make than machine produced and decorated glass. The price for a well-made and decorated cut glass piece should correspond to the quality of glass, intricacy of design and the skill of its maker in the cutting.
Identification Tips – Cut or Pressed?
Cut glass designs can most easily be distinguished from blown-molded and press-molded glass designs by simply running the fingers over the edges of the design. Molded glass designs may look cut at first glance, especially if you are new to buying glass decorated with a busy design, but the edges of the design are rounded and smooth and this can be felt. They feel soft, not the way cut glass feels, at all. Cut glass designs will feel sharp and crisp to the touch.
Though sometimes a mold blown shape may have been hand-cut, the general rule of thumb is that if you see mold marks, which are typically a feature of molded ware, then that is most likely what you have. Look for a pontil mark on glass with mold seams as if this is present along with mold seams you may have an older piece of pattern glass that was blown into a mold.
Pressed pattern glass does not reflect light from its surface in the same way as cut lead glass. It isn’t as ‘brilliant’ in daylight. Cut glass will primarily be on a ‘flint’ or crystal type body that has an extremely reflective surface. Keep in mind, too, that lead crystal is heavier than other formulas of glass and it gives a distinctive ringing sound when lightly tapped.
Molded and pressed pattern glass is lovely and highly collected, but each piece was made in greater numbers, having been mechanically manufactured, and multiple identical examples can exist. The lower value of molded and pressed pattern glass, in comparison to similar shapes of cut glass, is based on this fact.
Manufactured patterns in glass may sometimes resemble cut glass designs, but they are not the same and should not be referred to as ‘cut’ glass.