American Brilliant Period Glass: Affordable Victorian Elegance

by Christopher and Marie Kierkus

This article sets out to accomplish three things: first, we would like to introduce the reader to American Brilliant Period Glass (ABP) and provide a brief overview of its history.  Second, we want to give the aspiring collector a concise “how to” guide for identifying and evaluating ABP pieces.  Finally, we want to share some advice about collecting and suggest a few good places to go “treasure hunting”.   

 We were inspired to write this article for two reasons.  We feel that ABP glass is a collectable that has high intrinsic beauty and historical value.  Much of it is now over 100 years old (making it a “true” antique).  It is hand crafted and exhibits excellence in design, form and detail that simply can’t be matched by modern crystal.   At the same time, ABP pieces remain very reasonably priced.  Collectors can pick up small, simple pieces for less than $20.  Even large, high quality pieces such as punch bowls, decanters and serving trays can be purchased for less than $500.  Furthermore, there seems to be a great deal of confusion among the antique community regarding what is, and what is not, ABP glass.  We have seen dealers advertise pressed glass or modern crystal as ABP.  We have also seen ABP pieces sold along side modern glass without any acknowledgement of their special status.  We hope that this article can help “set the record straight” and create an appreciation for this type of antique.      

  So what is ABP glass?  Generally speaking, it is fine quality, hand-cut crystal produced between 1880 and 1925.  Its exceptional “brilliance” results from the high lead content of the glass (up to 50%, versus 24% for modern crystal) which gives it a high refractive index.  In other words, ABP pieces behave like prisms or gemstones: they bend and scatter light into the different colors of the rainbow.  To make a piece of ABP glass, an artisan would take a “blank” (or uncut piece of glass) and press it against a series of spinning wheels.  This would cut the desired pattern into the surface of the glass.  When finished, he or she would polish the design (cutting gave glass a milky, white appearance; polishing restored its clarity and sparkle). ABP pieces were originally designed and manufactured for the upper classes of Victorian society.   They were more expensive than most “common people” could afford.  A large, highly detailed piece might retail for two to three times the weekly salary of the artisan who made it!

 Before starting a collection of ABP glass, the interested individual may wish to consult one of the fine books available at his or her local bookstore or library.  However, this article is designed to serve as a concise and practical “field guide” to identifying and evaluating ABP pieces.

What to Look For (Part One): An ABP Primer

ABP Glass vs. Pressed (“Nucut”) Glass

True ABP pieces were hand crafted from the finest glass available.  This made them too expensive for the average consumers of their day.  Consequently, many companies produced “imitation” ABP pieces by manufacturing a mold in the shape of a desired pattern and pressing it into a mediocre quality glass blank.  This “Nucut” (pronounced: “New Cut”) glass can be instantly recognized.  The designs lack sharpness and the blank itself is usually cloudy, slightly rough to the touch and has an almost plastic feel.  The aspiring collector should consult a reputable dealer of antique glass and carefully examine several examples of both types of glass.  The differences will be instantly obvious to both sight and touch.   

The cost of true ABP pieces ranges widely.  The estimates presented below are for average quality pieces with minimal damage and simple designs.  The prices are based on items sold at multi-dealer antique malls, antique fairs or reputable auction services.  Price adjustments for other circumstances will be presented as appropriate. An estimate of $20 - $50 is fair for small, common pieces such as individual glasses, cordials, salt and pepper shakers, small plates, bon-bon dishes, olive trays, “nappies” (a type of general purpose dish), toothpick holders and knife rests.  Medium sized pieces such as fruit bowls (typically about 8” in diameter), perfume bottles, cruets, ice buckets, flower (“ferner”) bowls, larger plates, vases, water carafes and celery trays typically command prices in the $45 – $90 range.  Large, common pieces, such as decanters, compotes, ice cream and bread trays, large vases and water or champagne pitchers usually sell for $85 – $175.   Very large items such as bowls in excess of 10” in diameter, trays in excess of 14” in length, vases taller than 13”, punch bowls, flower baskets and candlesticks typically command prices in the $150 to $400 range.  Pieces that are made up of more than one section, or those that come in sets, tend to be more costly.  A simple sugar and cream set, puff box or cigar jar might cost $75 – $150.  Larger pieces such as covered cheese sets, ice tubs with under plates or covered comports will usually sell for $150 – $350.  Very large, multi-section items such as punch bowls with stands, decanters or pitchers with cordials or glasses, cut glass lamps and candelabra’s will command the highest prices: $300 – $600.  Intricate patterns, signed pieces, unique shapes and colored glass add immensely to an item’s value.  Small “Nucut” pieces typically sell for 25-33% the price of true ABP glass.  Large “Nucut” imitations are only worth 5-20% as much as true ABP glass.

100% Cut Pieces vs. Figured Blanks

Early in the ABP, the patterns (or “motifs”) were 100% hand cut.  Later in the period (after 1910), many companies attempted to reduce production costs by pressing part of the design into the blank and cutting the remainder.  These partially pressed blanks are usually called “figured” and can be recognized by a lack of sharpness in the features.  Figured blanks became especially popular during the “Flower Period” of the ABP (see below); however, they can sometimes be found on later geometric pieces.  Pieces cut on figured blanks usually bring approximately 40-80% of the price that 100% cut pieces with simple patterns retail for.

Hand Polished vs. Acid Polished Pieces

Early in the ABP, all of the designs were polished by hand.  After carving a design, an artisan would polish the piece by pressing the rough cut design against a polishing wheel.  After 1905, many cut glass houses discovered that they could polish rough cut designs by dipping the pieces in a strong acid bath.  This made the production process far less expensive.  Unfortunately, even the best acid polishing left pieces with a slightly “watery” appearance (much like looking through a wet windshield).   Poor acid polishing resulted in severe “waveyness” and occasional blisters or bubbles on the surface of the glass.

Nicely acid polished pieces usually bring 60 – 90% of the price of simple, hand polished pieces.  Poorly acid polished items resemble “Nucut” items and are typically worth less than 33% what a simple, hand polished item might bring.

Geometric vs. “Flower Period” Designs 

ABP pieces can be divided into two general classes of designs.  Prior to 1910 most pieces were cut in geometric patterns.  These are frequently called “rich cut glass”.  They consist of  combinations of hobstars, pinwheels, diamonds, fans and other geometric patterns.  After 1910, many companies began cutting and engraving non-geometric designs on their glass.  Flowers were the most common pattern, but fruit, birds and other natural scenes also appeared.  Many of the “flower period” pieces combined natural objects with geometric patterns.  For instance, it was not uncommon to see a border of hobstars around a floral center on a bowl or a plate.

Most flower period pieces are acid polished and low quality; many are cut on figured blanks.  The floral designs have little detail; only the outline of the flower and some basic texture is evident.  As explained above, these pieces are worth 33-80% as much as simple, hand polished geometric pieces.  However, a few “flower period” pieces are hand cut, polished and engraved using a copper wheel.  The detail of the floral or natural designs is exceptional: they appear as if an artist had carefully sketched the pattern on the glass.  Such pieces are usually called “intaglio”, “engraved” or “gravic” glass.  They are worth 1.5 to 5 times more than simple geometric ABP glass!  Many such pieces are signed by their manufacturers. Those made by Hawkes, Sinclaire and Tuthill are particularly desirable.      


A Flower Period Nappy Cut on a Figured Blank (circa 1915-1920)

 This piece is acid polished and combines flower period and geometric designs.

(estimated retail value: $25-$35) 

Early vs. Middle vs. Late Geometric Patterns

It is often possible to estimate the age of an ABP piece by examining the patterns cut in the glass.  It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a detailed pattern recognition guide.  However, a few general trends should help the collector identify pieces. 

Early in the period (prior to 1895) patterns tended to be relatively simple.  Most pieces were cut with diamonds, cross-cut diamonds (sometimes called “strawberry diamonds”, fans, thumb prints (or “punties”), hobnails, simple hobstars and flutes.  The miter lines (the deeply cut main lines that separate individual motifs) were usually straight.  A substantial portion of the blank was not covered by cutting; however, the quality of the existing cutting was very high.  For instance, the points on stars met precisely, diamonds were exactly the same size and the patterns exhibited exceptional symmetry. Moreover, pieces from this time period were never acid polished.  Consequently, they appear exceptionally clear, with no “waveyness”. 

During the middle period  (circa 1895-1910) the patterns became much more elaborate.  Combinations of motifs including hobstars, starbursts, circles, loops, swirls and gothic arches became popular.  The miter lines were frequently curved and numerous, especially on large pieces. Certain pieces were cut in celestial motifs (owing to the influence of Haley’s Comet).  Some ABP glass from this period had virtually no uncut surfaces.  The quality of these elaborately cut pieces tended to be quite high. Although some were acid polished the fact that few uncut surfaces remained visible made this difficult to detect.

Finally, during the later brilliant period (1910 and later), many of the patterns became simplified.  Hobstars were replaced by pinwheels, which are less labor intensive.  Floral patterns became popular (alone or in combination with geometric motifs) as did figured blanks.  The majority of pieces made during this period were acid polished.

A Crimped Bon-Bon in a Pinwheel and Zipper Cut Pattern (circa 1907-1915)

 The pinwheel design and acid polish on this piece indicate that it was made during the later brilliant period.

However, the crimp design and high quality cutting add to its value.

(estimated retail value: $45-$75) 

The prices in the first section of this article refer to simple pieces from the early and middle periods.  Prices for elaborate middle period glass will be somewhat higher (1.5 to 2 times higher).  Exceptionally elaborate pieces can bring prices that are 3 to 6 times higher than simple early designs.  For instance, a large, highly ornate, two piece punch bowl can easily sell for $2000.  A large (17”), ornately cut ice cream tray would be expected to bring $600 – $1500.   Pieces with celestial themes and unique combinations of motifs are particularly desirable.  Prices for simple, acid polished, geometric pieces from the late brilliant period will be about 40-75% of those for simple hand polished pieces from the early and middle periods.

ABP Glass vs. Modern Cut Crystal

The art of glass cutting has virtually disappeared from the North American continent.  However, moderate to high quality lead crystal continues to be cut in Great Britain, Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.  Fortunately, it is quite simple to distinguish ABP pieces from modern cut glass.  Modern glass is usually cut on figured blanks.  The patterns tend to be simple: diamonds are rarely cross-cut, pinwheels have flat star centers and hobstars are very rarely cut (except by “high end” companies such as Waterford).  Moreover, interior details are almost always left unpolished.   This was hardly ever done on ABP glass except on flower period pieces.  Finally, close examination of the miter lines reveal minute striations created by the diamond tipped tools used to cut modern crystal.  These striations will not appear on ABP pieces because diamond cutters were not available during the period.

A Stopper From a High Quality Modern Crystal Decanter

 Note the opaque, unpolished appearance of the center of the pinwheel and the cross-cuts

on the diamonds.  These areas would be polished on a true ABP piece.

(estimated retail value of the stopper and decanter: $50-$75) 

Surprisingly, there is little difference in the cost of small, simple ABP pieces and fine modern crystal.  One would expect to pay about the same amount for a simple ABP bon-bon as for a nice modern crystal candy dish.  However, large, more finely cut ABP pieces are much more expensive than modern crystal.  Colored ABP pieces can command prices up to 10 times higher than even the finest modern colored crystal.   For instance, a large cobalt or cranberry cut-to-clear Waterford decanter may sell for $200 - $400.  A price of $1500 - $5000 would not be unreasonable for a similar ABP piece.    

Look for Part 2 of this article in next month's issue!