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Czech Christmas glass, from a love affair to UNESCO status

The handmade production of blown glass beads into Christmas tree decorations in Ponikla, Czech Republic, has earned a place on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage last year

Published: Dec 17, 2021 03:09:36 PM IST
Updated: Dec 17, 2021 03:19:49 PM IST

Czech Christmas glass, from a love affair to UNESCO statusThe handmade production of Christmas tree decorations from blown glass beads earned a place on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage last year.
Image: Michal Cizek / AFP

Sparkling with colourful glitter, the small glassware shop in the Czech mountains lights up a grim, foggy day, as Christmas shoppers stream in to the constant chime of the doorbell.

They come to buy blown-glass beaded decorations including stars, angels, snowmen, Santa Clauses or cribs made by a small company in Ponikla, a village in the northern Czech Republic.

The "handmade production of Christmas tree decorations from blown glass beads" earned a place on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage last year.

The practice has survived until today only in Ponikla, whose local tradition has roots in a 19th-century love affair.

"A certain Mr Hajna fell in love with a local maid, they got married and he brought the very basics of the craft to Ponikla," says Marek Kulhavy, owner of the local Rautis factory, the only one left.

Hajna came from a nearby region where glass making had already flourished, and the craft spread fast as his neighbours were quick to learn it to make their living in the poor mountainous region.

Stanislav Horna opened the current Rautis factory in 1902 to produce fancy trimmings for clothes and costumes and met with great success, employing as many as 200 glass blowers at one point.

The company managed to stay afloat even after an act of espionage forced it to redirect its focus to Christmas ornaments.

"In the 1920s, a group of Japanese industrial spies disguised as tourists copied the process and started to produce the trimmings, taking the eastern markets away," Kulhavy told AFP.

"The warehouses were full of beads and somebody decided to start making Christmas decorations as Christmas trees were a hit at the time."

Blessing in disguise

In 1948, all of the glass factories were nationalised as the Communists took power in the former Czechoslovakia, and Horna's son was even thrown into prison like many entrepreneurs.

But the business benefited from the move as the Communists limited blown-glass bead manufacturing to Ponikla.

"It was a blessing in disguise," says Kulhavy.

"Glass beads were always on the fringe (of glass production) and they lived their own life even during Communism as nobody was really interested in them and so the business survived."

Shortly after the Communist regime was toppled in 1989, Kulhavy's father bought the Ponikla factory which currently employs 50 people.

Production begins with a glass pipe which is heated and shaped by blowing inside a mould. The plant has more than 1,000 patterns, according to Kulhavy.

The shaped pipe is silvered from inside with a solution and then dyed from outside, before being cut up, threaded with strings and turned into an ornament.

"Some beads are also treated by a painter. For instance angel heads need painted details," said Kulhavy.

Jurassic Park

The Czech market is crucial, but the Ponikla decorations also head to neighbouring Austria and Germany and other European countries, as well as Japan and the United States.

Facebook fan Iren Hellerova was excited to receive the parcel she ordered, calling the Christmas beads "beautiful".

She said the ornaments make for unique gifts as "no one else in the world has this!".

Some beads still end up on regional costumes in the Czech Republic, Germany, the Baltics, the Balkan countries or Latin America.

Standing in front of a rack with glass motorbikes, cars and spiders in cobwebs, Kulhavy said the company had about 300 products to offer.

"We once made Jurassic Park and Wild West collections to attract US buyers in the 1990s, they were pretty ugly," he chuckled.

UNESCO listed the production as a "specialised and technically demanding" craft, hailing the factory for safeguarding the tradition as the sole survivor.

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