The countless millions of vintage glass buttons produced in Germany and Czechoslovakia -- most of them made one at a time by hand -- provide jewelry components that are virtually limitless. Few decorative objects are found in such a great variety, and are as visually exciting and affordable as the beautiful glass buttons made in central Europe during the 20th century.
Almost all glass buttons are handmade to a large degree. Very small and plain glass buttons can be molded on automatic machines similar to commercial bead-making machines, but nearly all other glass buttons require a significant amount of handwork. Glass button craftsmen typically work at individual stations furnished with a small furnace, a quantity of glass canes, and scissor-like button molds in which one button at a time is hand-pressed from glass drawn from a semi-molten glass cane. Since the 13th century, North Bohemia has been a center for the glass manufacturing trade in Europe. The area became part of Czechoslovakia after World War I and is now part of the Czech Republic. The majority of glass buttons made in the 20th century owe their existence to the craftsmen of this area.
In a settling of scores at the end of World War II, all Germans in Czechoslovakia were forced to leave and move to Germany, most with only 24 hours' notice and little more than what they could carry. Almost all button manufacturing equipment, including molds and glass stock, remained in Czechoslovakia. In 1946, Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia began, and button craftsmen were forced to make buttons for a few large state-directed factories. A single state-controlled export company marketed Czech buttons to the world outside Czechoslovakia. The fall of communism resulted in the breakup of the state-directed factory and distribution system. Craftsmen set up small shops such as those they had in the past, using molds and equipment obtained from the breakup of the large state factories. Special orders of buttons were commissioned by Americans for the collector market; old molds were used and a few new designs were introduced.
Most old-stock Czech buttons of collectible quality disappeared from the market, either through sales to foreign bulk buyers or to collectors. Today, only a handful of Czech and German glass button makers practice the craft, selling their limited output to a small market of collectors and specialty retailers. Original mid-century button molds are still used; serviceable button molds turn up in factory basements and in antique stores. Buttons pressed from rediscovered molds can be indistinguishable from those pressed decades ago, but many of the newer buttons are made from glass types or decorated in styles not prevalent or available when the molds were first used. Styles have evolved over the years, and include florals, cut crystals, Art Deco styles, buttons with marbling, painted buttons, and buttons with fired on decorations of gold and silver.
You can also find beautiful Czech beads at Fire Mountain Gems.
For examples of what selected jewelry artisans on Etsy have done with buttons, see these sites:
veryDonna - who specializes in "Vintage Button and Art Glass Jewelry" (one of her great designs is shown here)
You can also read more about Czech beads in general in our previous post: F is for Fire Polish Beads.
Until Next Time,