Wednesday, 9 March 2011

History: Sommerso Beads

Sommerso is the Italian name for the glass-making technique whereby one layer of glass lies submerged beneath another (the literal translation is 'submerged' or 'sunken glasses'). The technique is an ancient one, but it was popularised by Venetian glass makers during the period of the 1930s to the 1950s, and in particular by the maker Flavio Poli working for Seguso Vetri d'Arte in Murano. Poli's work includes elliptical vases created by dipping a form produced in one colour of glass  into a crucible containing molten glass of another colour. A final overlay was made of clear glass. Sommerso glass production is highly skilled as it requires the maker to ensure that the layers of molten glass retain their regularity of line and that no bubbles are trapped within, or between the colours. The best glass art pieces made from this technique resemble coloured liquid held in suspension.

Image of an Flavio Poli elliptical vase from

Beads made using the same technique tend to show a looser application of colour, through the use of an abstract or regular pattern so that the layering can be readily seen. The external casing of transparent glass serves to magnify and enhance the underlying pattern and colour. Venetian sommerso beads start with a small amount of glass wrapped around the mandrel. Next comes a layer of coloured glass, small fragments of another colour, perhaps a wrap of gold or silver foil, or, popularly, swirls of aventurine (tiny copper particles suspended in clear glass). Lastly, a layer of transparent glass - generally clear, but not always - is used to encase the colours and textures within.

The beads below are Venetian sommerso beads dating to the 1950s. They contain swirls of baby blue and aventurine glass under clear, and around (as far as I can see) a clear glass core.

Sommerso type beads made outside of Italy, may be made in imitation of venetian bead styles, such as these Chinese beads made from a core of black glass partially wrapped with gold foil and then overlaid with clear glass.

These Chinese lampwork beads featuring flower patterns are also finished with a layer of clear glass so that the flowers appear to float trapped beneath the surface.

For us the outer casing of glass adds an extra level of desirability to the bead. It is the final act that adds shine, weight, sensual smoothness and a certain hoorah to the skill of the beadmaker.

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