Since the discovery of fire, humans have used the resulting heat source for more than a means to prepare food and stay warm. The ancient Venetians specialized in a variety of glassmaking, particularly beads.
The term “lampwork” is derived from the Venetian process “a lume” which means at the lamp, where in centuries past, they used the heat from an oil lamp to melt the glass. work the hot glass in a flame, or “flame working”. Today, we use torches that blend both fuel and oxygen, resulting in a much hotter flame and better control.
Lampwork glass beads are made by melting a glass rod in the flame and winding it onto a steel rod called a mandrel. The mandrels are coated in a special mixture called bead release or bead separator that allows the glass to be removed safely from the mandrel when cooled.
The basic process is unchanged from Venitian ancient times, as the Venitians coated the mandrel with a mixture of silica and clay, allowing some room to form when the bead cooled and thus allowed for easy removal from the mandrel. This mixture was originally known as “fango”, which means mud. Evidently, the substance was literally mud from the lagoon.
In lampwork beadmaking, a variety of materials can be incorporated to enhance the glass designs. A skilled combination of heat, gravity, and even sandblasting can be used to shape and form the beads. Glass rods of different colours, if melted together and twisted, pulled, or cut into designs create intricate patterns. Sterling silver wire, mesh, foil and leaf, copper mesh, cubic zirconia stones, authentic fresh water pearls, and pearl lustres are just a few items that can be added to glass when it’s hot to enhance a design. In the GIF above you can see me adding glass frit to the bead for added effect.
Glass comes off the torch in a molten state, about 1500 degrees. It is cooled until no longer glowing and put into a kiln to anneal. The annealing process lets the glass cool slowly over time, without going into “thermal shock” which toughens the glass up and prevents undesirable stress and defects in the glass.
When the beads are completely cool, they’re removed from the mandrels and cleaned with a Dremel type tool to ensure the holes are clear. They are then inspected thoroughly, and if all is well they are given the stamp of approval that qualifies this bead as a long lasting piece of jewellery.
Click here to see a small samples of the wide variety of designs achieved through lampworking.