On an otherwise ordinary afternoon in 1985, Susan Davis visited her grandmother Bettie. While they chatted, Susan was sifting through her grandmother’s button boxes, as she often did, when one notably pretty button caught her eye. Susan fished it out, held it up, and said, “Grandma, this would make a beautiful earring.”
At that moment, the beauty and craftsmanship of a single button altered Susan’s life plan. It inspired her to start a jewelry-making business, and now three decades and tens of thousands of jewelry designs later, this notable button has impacted the lives of so many people.
The sweet button in question was a jet luster Czech glass button from the 1930s, and Susan’s been on the hunt for more of them ever since. Surprisingly, vintage Czech glass buttons can be harder to find than the much older antique metal Victorian buttons that make up most of our collection.
Susan bought her first cache of vintage Czech glass buttons from an antique dealer in New Orleans after two boxes of these rare beauties were discovered in an abandoned elevator shaft in the French Quarter. Susan kept a few intact button cards from this find because she found them so breathtakingly lovely. Today, they’re on display in the button museum located in our St. Francisville retail store.
Czech glass has a long, compelling history, originating in the thirteenth century in the city of Jablonec and the surrounding area known as Northern Bohemia in what today is the Czech Republic. Large deposits of silica and limestone in the nearby Jizera Mountains made this region ideal for glass and crystal production. The crystal glassware, chandeliers, beads, and buttons from this region have been world-renowned for centuries, with names like Strauss and Swarovski originating here.
The first pressed glass buttons were produced in the region around 1760 after the invention of the button mold. By the end of the 1820s, glass button production was booming, with dozens of pressing plants springing up all over the hills and valleys of the Jizera mountains. Gorgeous buttons were created by pressing heated glass rods into molds with metal tongs, a process that remains essentially the same today.
The industry hit its zenith in the last half of the nineteenth century when Czech glass button companies experienced massive growth and began exporting buttons worldwide. During this era, specialist engravers began carving exquisitely detailed button molds, thus creating the gorgeous designs that are adored throughout the world even today.
Hand-carved, hardened-steel button kernels were everywhere--in cases, boxes, drawers.
Sadly the twentieth century brought international competition, two World Wars, and the advance of communism, all of which negatively affected Czech button companies. The hard-hit industry briefly flourished after WWI, exporting tons of buttons to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. These are the buttons that Susan found in her grandmother’s button boxes and hold such a special place in her heart.
After WWII, the communists who ruled Czechoslovakia stifled creativity and shut down trade with the west. Today, there is only two button pressing houses left in the Czech Republic.
Susan and her husband Donny traveled to the region in 2017 and were thrilled to visit both of them. They were excited to find out that they operate much the same as they always have. In fact, several of the antique lacy glass buttons on display in our button museum are still being manufactured using their original molds.
Susan and Donny witnessed over a century of button history laid out in collections containing hundreds, if not thousands of antique button molds and tongs. They also saw countless kernels, which are the models used to create the molds in which the buttons are pressed. These kernels were hand-carved with great skill from hardened steel many decades ago and continue to be used today because making new ones is prohibitively expensive.
A stack of the yard-long button tongs, and an up-close glimpse of button molds set in the tongs.
They learned how incredibly laborious the manufacturing process actually is. The button makers make molds by placing century-old kernels on an enormous foot-powered press dating from 1908. The press holds a softer piece of metal pushed down into the kernel to create a negative of the design that will eventually become the button mold.
The antique press used to make button molds with the hardened steel kernels.
Susan and Donny visited a small, two-room shop, almost identical to the ones that existed 150 years ago. There are only two button pressing houses left in the Czech Republic, and they produce buttons for all of the different companies that finish, decorate, and sell them. Each button is made individually as the presser heats glass rods in an oil furnace and presses them in the molds held at the end of long iron tongs.
One of the few remaining button pressers in the Czech Republic at work.
Then the buttons go to the finishing room to have their rough edges trimmed off in much the same way you or I would trim the excess batter off a waffle. They are then polished until smooth and delicately hand-painted with enamel colors or gold and silver luster.
Making these buttons is such a painstaking, labor-intensive process that today they are only made to order, and orders can take up to six months to be filled.
Susan knows a good bit about Czech glass buttons because she’s collected them for decades. However, she didn’t fully understand the full scale of the labor and talent that goes into producing them until she visited the Czech Republic.
Before her visit, Susan was reluctant to use modern Czech glass buttons in Grandmother’s Buttons jewelry designs. She was devout about maintaining a clear boundary between century-old antique buttons and reproductions. However, while in the Czech Republic, she became completely beguiled by the colorful, almost glowing glass buttons and the century-old processes by which they are made.
A vintage sample book of glass rod colors.
So now we are proud to include these newly-made versions of century-old Czech button designs into some of our bracelets and necklaces. We think they combine beautifully with antique metal buttons and vintage pearls and that Czech glass provides a vivid pop of color and sparkle.
Even more exciting, is that while Susan was in the Czech Republic she chose some molds and kernels (some of which have not been used in decades) that the Czech button makers will use to produce buttons just for us. We think these buttons are very special and we want to do everything we can to help sustain this special industry.
It’s amazing to think that one stunning glass button in Susan’s grandmother’s button box inspired it all.