No one was murdered, no blood was shed—that we know of—but there is considerable mystery surrounding red glassware. This unique glassware was produced in Egypt over 3000 years ago, as early as 1550 BC. The Egyptians used copper to produce a dense, opaque red glass.
The Romans made red glassware, too, and like the Egyptian counterpart, most Roman red glass was made with copper and was opaque.
There was another type of Roman red glassware, though. The Lycurgus Cup in the British Museum is a unique 4th century Roman glass piece. The cup is green in reflected light, but turns translucent red when light is transmitted through it. Recent investigation has revealed that the color change is caused by light refraction from nanoparticles of gold and silver—an example of 3500-year-old nanotechnology.
There are very few extant pieces of similar Roman glass, and none with the color characteristics of the Lycurgus cup. Nobody knows how the Roman glassmakers discovered the process, but many people believe it was created by accident and that the glassmaker was unable to duplicate his recipe.
Even though the ancient Egyptians and Romans knew how to make red glassware, the secret for making even opaque red glass was lost for centuries. Finally, in about 1670, a Bohemian chemist named Johann Kunckel rediscovered the secret. Kunckel discovered that adding gold chloride to the glass produced a beautiful, transparent-red coloring. Kunckel’s discovery may have been one of the factors that ended the world dominance held by Venetian glassblowers.
Red Glassware Today
Today’s finest red glassware is still made with Kunckel’s recipe. The depth of color is determined by the amount of gold chloride in the glass. Gold-red varies from a delicate pink to a deep ruby color, and the deeper the color, the more expensive the piece.
Less expensive red glass is made today by adding selenium and other chemicals to the glass. Selenium creates deep, rich ruby red colors that make the pieces very affordable.
Copper is still used to make red glassware, too, but usually as a stain coating the inside of the glassware. The process for adding copper to the glass is difficult and expensive, and there are simply easier and better ways to achieve the same result.
Whether you have affordable selenium glassware tumblers, an expensive gold-red vase, or a copper brandy glass, red glassware is beautiful and collectible. Even with different shades of red and different styles, the pieces all go well together. Set your table with red glassware and you have instant beauty, drama, and a mystery to begin the dinner conversation with.