I started making beads about 22 years ago and at that time there was no information on how to do it or where to buy supplies. I had been fusing glass in a kiln for about 6 years and been melting glass in a plumber’s torch to make small design elements. I had never seen or heard of a torch designed especially for lampworking and the oxygen / gas ratio of a plumber’s torch is all wrong for lampworking in glass because it turns the glass black from lack of oxygen in the flame.
About 26 years ago, an antique dealer friend of mine brought me some Moretti glass rods and murrini back from Murano, Italy where he was buying antique murrini from the owner of the Moretti glass factory. I was dumb struck by the colors that the glass rods came in and immediately started playing with them. Getting the Moretti glass spiked my interest and started me on a quest that culminated in lampwork beadmaking.
I discovered the correct kind of torch to use when I took a borosilicate lampworking class at Pilchuck Glass School in 1987 from Ginny Ruffiner. During the 2 week class, I decided to see how the Moretti 104 COE glass would act in the oxygen rich flame used for borosilicate work and I was pleasantly surprised when I found that the colors didn’t turn black in this kind of torch flame. This discovery was an epiphany and it changed my life.
It was impossible back in the 1980’s to find a retail supplier who carried Moretti glass rods in the U.S., so I ended up buying 22 pound bundles by myself directly from the Moretti glass factory. Due to the amount of money this requires, I had to limit the number of colors that I could buy in a shipment. My first shipment had 15 colors that I worked in for the first year. These days, Frantz Art Glass is the largest importer of Effetre/Moretti glass rods into the United States.
In the beginning of my glass quest, I tried to find an Italian to teach me how to lampwork, but the Italians have a cultural thing of keeping artistic information like lampworking to themselves. I over came this hurdle when I found a series of books produced and distributed by John and Ruth Picard in Carmel, California. These books were about different kinds of glass beads that were used in West Africa for trade purposes during the 16th and 17th century. Three of the volumes pertained to fancy lampworked beads and I looked at these books to figure out how to make different lampwork bead designs. There is so much visual information in the Picard bead books; they kept me experimenting with bead designs for years.
Another problem I had to overcome in my glass quest was finding tools to work the glass with. I started out with a butter knife to move the hot glass around, but it didn’t take me too long to find a graphite paddle that was made to be used for working borosilicate glass. When I went to Italy and started meeting different Italian lampworkers, I was surprised to find that almost all of them use a butter knife as one of their favorite tools.
I found my first good stainless steel spatulas and poking tools at an estate sale of a dead dentist, but most of the time in the early days I had to make what I needed myself, including bead dip.
It is really wonderful how much the lampworking supply industry has advanced the availability of all kinds of lampworking tools, educational material and an avalanche of new glass colors. I think it is exciting to be a lampworker these days.