An explantion of what baluster and balustroid wine glasses – and baluster stems – are all about

There are
many words that we glass collecting types like to bandy about with impunity,
adding an air of sophistication and mystery to our hobby, obfuscating our earnest
conversations in the shadows with the intent of excluding the casual eavesdropper.
However, we must be aware that in order to appear at least partially welcoming
toward newcomers who wish to enter the inner sanctum of proceedings, we must –
once in a while – take time to explain exactly what on earth it is that might
be on about. We’ve already done this to a certain extent with exposés of knops,
different bowl-forms, opaque and air twist stems and some of the other more
arcane terms – but what of balusters – what, indeed, is a baluster glass – and what
is a baluster stem – as if it’s not already more than enough for a connoisseur
of oenophile accoutrements to expose his knop to you…

perhaps the most accessible point of reference is to the term balustrade. I am
sure you are all aware of this simple architectural feature – a series of vertical
moulded pillars with a solid coping along the top, or a handrail when used
alongside a flight of stairs. Each of the single uprights is a baluster – a pilaster
or freestanding column, with a curved, symmetrical profile – you’ll recognise
them as being fairly commonplace from the pictures which accompany this
article. But of course, as is always the case with language, there’s more to it
than just a passing similarity to something that stops you falling off a
balcony or down a staircase. The original root of the word is from Greek, and
thence Latin, where it referred to the shape of the partially open flower of
the pomegranate. The buds had a smoothly swelling profile, initially thicker at
the stem and less so towards the extremity, but with the inverse proportion as
the flower matured and approached the point where it was to burst open. It was used
almost exclusively in this botanical sense right up until the “quattrocento”
early renaissance, especially in northern Italy, when it began to be applied to
design features. Up to this point the use of arched miniature arcading would
have sufficed for balcony edging – a recognisably Roman and later Norman
influence. Once the city states of the Veneto region made a conscious stylistic
departure from these earlier influences, however, the baluster began to appear in
buildings across Verona, Padua, Vicenza and Venice before spreading far and
wide as the renaissance itself burst in to full bloom over Western Europe.

Venice, at
this same time, was edging towards its place at the very forefront of glass
design. The extremely high quality metal with which the artisan craftsmen of
Murano were working leant itself to the production of exquisitely fine,
thinly-drawn serpentine adornments with which glass stems could be decorated;
the experience gained by the glassmakers of the island over time added to their
dexterity, and it was wholly unsurprising that when their wares began to spread
over the continent – where other far less sophisticated glass manufactories had
started to spring up – it was next to impossible to replicate them; European
glassmaking was truly in the dark ages compared to the skills of the
enlightened islanders of Murano.

If ever
anywhere was to be the antithesis of the refinement of production around the
lagoon, it was going to be good old Blighty. As glassmaking began to capture
the imagination of entrepreneurs across perfidious Albion, it was as an
industry, not a craft that it would seem to be most appropriately classified.
Our sooty, somewhat uncomplicated manufactories turned out usable wares and
always pursued lofty stylistic heights, but – at the turn of the 17th
century – even the best London glasshouses were hampered by the unsophisticated
processes that they employed. This meant – specifically – that although we were
able to produce some fine crystal, using high grade Lynn sand and
well-clarified lead, our furnaces were unable to heat the substrate to a high
enough temperature to render it as malleable and finely-workable as Venetian crystal.
Our glasses at this time were, in a word, clunky, with thick-rimmed bowls,
smutty inclusions and a stolid, uncomplicated form. Such limitations
notwithstanding though, we did our best to emulate the finer excesses of
continental glassware, the length of our stems began to grow – and decoration
came to the fore. However, all that could be done at first was to quickly elongate
the molten lead and fashion it rather crudely before it set hard; it could be stretched,
crimped, pinched, rolled and have simple ribs or coils appended and worked in
to the stem structure – this meant that the go-to adornments of English glasses
from the latter part of the 17th century were the aforementioned knops
– the bulbous swellings, albeit of a number of different styles, which found
their way on to stems. Before even this had become popular, the simple drawing
of stems into varying thicknesses to approximate some sort of contouring had
given us plain, unembellished glass pillars – very reminiscent of the stone
equivalents from renaissance architecture – the very balusters from which they were
to take their name.

An inverted
baluster was – as the name might suggest – a normally configured baluster stem
which was simply rotated through 180 degrees so that the thicker elements were
closer to the bowl of the glass rather than towards the foot, which was
initially the more normal configuration. This variant actually proved to be
more practical – the stems which were wider towards the top sitting more
naturally – and safely – in the hand.

What was to
follow with regard to the development of baluster stems simply mirrored the
advancements which were incorporated in to their production processes with
growing rapidity as the industrial revolution gathered pace. Improved refinement
of raw materials, ongoing research and development, hotter and more
easily-controllable furnaces all gave the British glassmakers a higher quality
crystal which could be more easily manipulated and their end products became
more delicate as a result. Knops could be shaped more dextrously, bowls were
lighter (consequently requiring less substantial stems and feet), improved tools
permitted more complex and precise working of molten crystal, and the original
heavy baluster glasses were replaced by balustroid types – retaining all the
original design elements, but simply better and more adroitly executed. By the
time that the inclusion of tears in the stems had been perfected, we had
finely-crafted type of glassware made from clear, near flawless crystal, and
British glassmaking was accelerating smartly away from its earlier, darker ages,
defining its own styles and setting its own standards.

By the 1750’s
even these vastly improved wares were being superseded by still more delicate
and thoughtfully composed pieces, and the newly-coined term light balusters – readily
attributed to glassmakers in Newcastle – came to the fore, with the pieces held
in such esteem that they were seen as the ideal medium on which the
astonishingly skilled engravers from the low countries preferred to work, as
they were considered to be of a high enough quality to properly complement the exquisite

And so it
can be seen that having originally been the embodiment of our somewhat uncomplicated
and utilitarian approach to glassmaking, the refinement of British baluster wine
glasses and baluster stems mirrored the transition of the processes on these
islands away from their workmanlike beginnings, right up to the stage where
they could produce the constituent parts of some of the most desirable of all Georgian
wine glasses – properly sought-after and treasured antique glasses. Not that
they’d be much use when it comes to stopping you falling of a balcony in to the
Grand Canal, mind, particularly after a few deep draughts of a sticky bardolino
or malmsey – do mind your step, now….

pictures show the (fairly obvious) progression from early heavy balusters, to
balustroids and then light balusters – with a couple of illustrative
architectural pieces and a plate from Dr Thoem’s “Flora von Deutschland” (1885)
that shows the profile of a fully-closed pomegranate flower, and a section
through one that is partially open (with due deference to Wikipedia for this particular

site search results for balusters of all types