Glittering with colorful sequins, a tiny glassware store lights up a short spooky, hazy winter day in a village in the Czech mountains, the time of year when, as Christmas approaches, shoppers flock to the sound of constant chime of the doorbell.
They flock to buy decorations in blown glass beads: stars, angels, snowmen, Santa Claus or whole nativity scenes, made by a small company in Ponikla, in the north of the country.
The “artisanal production of Christmas decorations from blown glass beads” was inscribed on the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage last year.
This practice has survived only in Ponikla, whose local tradition has its roots in a 19th century love story.
“A certain Mr. Hajna fell in love with a local maid, they got married and he brought with him the basics of craftsmanship to Ponikla”, explains Marek Kulhavy, owner of the Rautis factory, the only one left. .
Mr. Hajna came from a neighboring area where glassmaking was flourishing at the time, and the trade spread rapidly, with neighbors in a hurry to learn it to make a living in this poor mountainous region.
Stanislav Horna opened the current Rautis factory in 1902 to manufacture fancy trimmings for clothing and costumes. It was very successful, employing up to 200 glassblowers.
The company managed to stay afloat even when an act of espionage forced it to switch to Christmas decorations.
“In the 1920s, a group of Japanese industrial spies disguised as tourists copied the process and started producing their own toppings, taking the eastern markets,” Kulhavy told AFP.
“The warehouses were full of beads and someone decided to start making Christmas decorations because Christmas trees were a big hit back then.”
– ‘Blessing in disguise’ –
In 1948, all of the country’s glassworks were nationalized when the Communists seized power in the former Czechoslovakia. Mr Horna’s son was even thrown in jail, like many other entrepreneurs.
The company itself paradoxically profited from it, the Communists having limited the manufacture of blown glass beads to the village of Ponikla.
“A blessing in disguise,” acknowledges Mr. Kulhavy.
“Glass beads have always been on the fringes (of glass production) and they lived their own lives, even during communism, because no one was really interested in them, and therefore the company survived,” says- he does.
Shortly after the overthrow of the Communist regime in 1989, Mr. Kulhavy’s father bought the factory, which currently employs 50 people.
The production begins with a glass pipe, which is heated and shaped by blow molding in one of more than a thousand different molds.
The pipe is silvered from the inside with a specific solution, then tinted from the outside, before being cut, threaded on strings and transformed into decoration.
“Some pearls are processed by a painter. For example, angel heads need painted details,” says Kulhavy.
– Jurassic Park –
The Czech market is crucial, but Ponikla’s decorations also go to neighboring Austria and Germany, other European countries, as well as to Japan and the United States.
Facebook fan Iren Hellerova was delighted to receive her package full of “beautiful” Christmas bead decorations she had ordered.
For her, these ornaments are unique gifts because “no one else in the world has them like it!”.
Some pearls always end up on regional costumes in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Baltic countries, the Balkans or Latin America.
Standing in front of a shelf with glass motorcycles, cars and spiders, Mr. Kulhavy says the company has had as many as around 300 models in the catalog. “We did Jurassic Park and Far West collections to attract American buyers in the 1990s, they were pretty ugly,” he chuckles.
Unesco has classified the production as “specialized and technically demanding” craftsmanship, hailing the factory for having safeguarded this tradition of which it is the only survivor. “Glass beads have always been a kind of Cinderella. They have risen into the limelight thanks to the classification” at Unesco, smiles Mr. Kulhavy. He adds: “when you throw light on a star, it simply shines”.