“Collecting runs in the genes,” says Lisa Lawson, whose penchant for paperweights is equaled by that of her niece, Denise Whittington. Lisa acquired her first paperweight in 1989, Denise in 1997 when she and her husband were living in New Zealand. Soon, word spread and they were receiving weights from family and friends. Between them, the duo now has hundreds, each treated more as a work of art than an office accessory.
Paperweights were initially designed with just function in mind, as lifeless lumps of glass or metal used to anchor paper bills and letters against breezes wafting into offices through opened windows. By the mid 1800s, however, an entire industry emerged to serve this purpose in a more stylish way. Factories in France, followed by England and America, built on Italian glass-making traditions to reimagine paperweights as objets d’art for the desktop. Baccarat in France and America’s Boston & Sandwich were famed producers, as was Tiffany & Co.
Today, the exchange of information occurs for the most part electronically, lessening the need for a paperweight that’s not purely decorative. As a result, Denise notes, “most quality modern paperweights aren’t mass-produced, but rather made individually by glass artists in studios.” This includes many in Denise’s collection, which she displays as art glass on shelves that span an entire wall in her living room. But it’s only upon closer inspection that the detail of their beauty is revealed.
The first paperweight Denise purchased came from a gallery on New Zealand’s South Island, near a popular destination known as Pancake Rocks. It falls into a category of paperweights known as millefiori, the Italian word for “a thousand flowers.” This technique requires dipping glass canes into layers of different colored molten glass and then slicing the canes into thin cross-sections, called murrine. The murrine are then bundled together and covered in a thick dome of clear glass, which magnifies their colorful patterns.
Denise and Lisa don’t stick to just one type of paperweight, but gravitate towards the colors and designs they find most appealing. Oftentimes for Denise, this means abstract swirl designs, created through a process of melting and spinning crushed pieces of colored glass, called frits, into the paperweight during production.
Denise has sourced many while on holiday, in Eureka Springs, Mountain Vernon, and even London, England, where she discovered another millefiori weight at the Antiques Market on Portobello Road. One of her favorites to date, however, features blue and green swirls, which she found during a summer holiday with her family, at an art glass shop in Seaside, Florida.
Conversations about their paperweights are dotted with references to “Nana” and “Mammy,” Denise’s grandmother and great-grandmother, who further enabled the duo’s collecting with paperweights found everywhere from New Orleans to Italy. Through both Lisa and Denise, the family’s affinity for collecting beautiful things, and sharing them among each other, is evidently stronger than ever. “If I have one,” says Lisa, “I figure that’s a good start to a collection.”
Tips for Collectors
• Older paperweights tend to be heavier because they contain more lead.
• Bubbles are also common in older weights because artists had less control over heat. Unless they are intentional, bubbles decrease value, but minor scratches detract very little from the value of paperweights.
• Studying the canes used in a millefiori paperweight can help determine the factory and era in which it was made.
• A stamped paperweight denotes mass production, meaning the paperweight is likely to be older. On the other hand, modern weights by artists are often signed.
• For more information about paperweights, visit The Paperweight Collectors Association web site: www.paperweight.org