Sunday, April 25, 2010


The Alsatian village of Meisenthal nestles in a deep valley amid the mountains of the Vosges du Nord. Meisenthal, famous for its crystal glasses and art works, served as the second part of our weekend theme of regional artisanal industries. Like Sarreguemines, Meisenthal had grown as a one-company town--in this case the Meisenthal glassworks--that had lost its industry in by the end of the 20th Century.

Meisenthal was one of the original sites of the Alsatian glass industry. As early as the 15th Century, semi-mobile glassmakers were at work here. The main glassworks was founded in 1704, producing lead crystal ware of high quality and superb craft. The workforce--glass makers, glass blowers, glass cutters, and glass painters--maintained high levels of skill from generation to generation.

In the face of competition, especially from mechanized production from Belgium and Germany, the Meisenthal glass works closed on December 31, 1969. Indeed, many other glass works in the region closed over the years--Montbronn in 1957, Lemberg in 1997, Harzviller in 2004, and Goetzenbruck in 2005.

Former Meisenthal workers lead tours of the Museum of Glass and Crystal, housed in one of the former factory buildings. The museum showcases some of the highlights of Meisenthal's work and explains, through two films, how the crystal was produced by hand, from start to finish. One of the guides, pointing to a cut-glass goblet (identical to one shown in one of the films) that retailed for $260 per glass joked that he could get us a great price if we bought a dozen.

During its apogee in the early 20th Century, the Meisenthal factory was a key center for Art Nouveau glass. Émile Gallé, one of the most famous members of the Nancy School of Art Nouveau, designed many pieces produced at Meisenthal, such as this vase.

And here's a contrasting style of vase from the same period.

A large factory building across from the museum has been repurposed as a performance space, the Halle Verrière de Meisenthal. The huge building, some 34,000 square feet, retains some of the factory's most interesting features, such as a central raised platform from which supervisors could survey the workers. The building had been abandoned with the closing of the plant at the end of 1969, and stood unused and neglected until a local artistic collective spearheaded its renovation, which was completed in 2004.

The International Center of Art Glass, housed in another, adjacent building of the old factory, seeks to preserve the memory of the Glass Country and to trace the perspectives of contemporary art glass through its roots in the glassmaking tradition. Contemporary artists come to Meisenthal to create new works at the Center. Some artists send their designs to the Center, where the Center's craftspeople produce the new pieces.

Two of the glassblowers gave a remarkable demonstration from the start to the finish of creating a contemporary art-glass piece. We could observe them working from a balcony that surrounded the studio. Here the glassblowers are transferring the partially finished vase from one pole to another, so that they can work on the vase's mouth.

The vase they created before our eyes was identical to one of the vases for sale in the Center's shop.

After the glassworkers completed the vase, they talked with us for a little while. In response to questions from Susie, the man in the white shirt explained that he became a glass blower because his father and both his grandfathers were glass blowers at Meisenthal. He said that he learned his skills as a child who spent many hours under the factory's tables while his father and fellow glassblowers worked.

Even if the glass ovens at Meisenthal are limited to demonstrations and works of art, Alsace still has some active commercial glass producers. As you travel along the roads of the Vosges du Nord, you pass numerous large glassware stores and even some factory stores.

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