During one of my regular weekend vintage jewelry shopping excursions, I met an antique dealer selling the most beautiful, brightly colored glass buttons. I had never seen anything quite like these before.
If I notice something unique and vintage that catches my attention, I always like to ask questions so I can learn the history. These were definitely unique, so I fired away. “Are these vintage? How were these made? Where in the world did they come from?” I would have never guessed the answers she was about to give me…
These buttons were made out of glass rhinestones from the 1930s and ’40s that were found in an old, rundown glass-making factory in Czechoslovakia which had been deteriorating since the war.
After all of the stones were collected, they were used in making these buttons that had the look of vintage costume jewelry. What a treasure! She bought several from her source and then brought them to her booth to sell the day I saw them.
With such incredibly vibrant colors, I couldn’t resist picking out a few to buy so I could repurpose them into adjustable rings. Here are three that I selected:
Ever since that day, I had an intense desire to learn more about these interesting glass stones and their history. Once I began to do a little research, it wasn’t long before I learned that they had quite a story to tell…
The Cottage Industry
Beginning in the 13th century, glass making factories started popping up all over Bohemia which is located in Central Europe. These factories produced beautiful glass beads and rhinestones in a variety of bright colors and shapes to make jewelry. By the mid-1800s, the quality, quantity, and variety of the glass produced there exceeded all others in the world.
It was not uncommon to see an entire family sitting together at a table making beads. Often, the color and shape of the bead were left up to the worker’s imagination. As a result, a wide variety of beautiful glass beads were created.
This prompted the Cottage Industry which gave thousands of families jobs to work out of their homes as pressers, grinders, cutters, trimmers, and polishers. They were paid very low wages which kept the jewelry prices down.
Wagonloads of jewelry were shipped each week all over the world. By 1920, 40% of all the beads were exported to the United States.
The Effect of WWII
The 1930s saw a slow decline, and then sadly, a complete standstill in the production of glass beads and stones as a result of WWII. The need for manufacturing ammunition and weapons became critical. Therefore, all resources of raw materials and people were used to manufacture for that single purpose.
At the end of the war in 1946, Bohemia, which had been established as Czechoslovakia since 1918, was under Communist rule. Many of the beadmakers were forced to leave. They were given 48 hours and one suitcase of their belongings. They had to leave behind everything else they owned including their houses and businesses that they had worked so hard to build all of their lives.
The Czech workers who were employed by them benefited significantly. They not only took over their houses by moving their families into fully furnished homes, but they were also now in charge of running the factories.
Once the government started handling the jewelry export business, the selection of colors and styles became very limited and the majority of the stones were made by machine rather than being handmade.
A New Beginning for Beadmakers
The beadmakers were German refugees, so they went back to their home country and most of them settled in Bavaria. It was important for them to live in close proximity to each other for their industry to survive.
After purchasing an ammunitions factory that had been bombed out, they started producing beads once again. Resources were so scarce that clay and bubblegum were actually used as molds to create the shapes of their beads! Some of the beadmakers brought their molds with them and thankfully, there were a few mold makers within these refugees.
Czechoslovakia is now part of the Czech Republic. Communism is no more and craftsmen have once again set up small shops using molds and equipment obtained from the breakup of the large, state-run factories. It has truly come full circle.
If you own a vintage piece of jewelry made with Czechoslovakian glass, treasure it dearly because now you know you also own an amazing piece of history.
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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