When a production unit closes down permanently, its technical assets are generally sold, disseminated, recycled or destroyed. While a certain number of "standard" tools are often worth a similar amount to new equipment minus wear and tear, others, custom-made for the needs of a particular production system, are often only valued by the weight of their material components. For example, when the Meisenthal glassworks closed down in 1969, 8,000 metal moulds that represented more than 250 years of shape memory and had each formed tens of thousands of pieces, were scrapped. If with hindsight, we can only bitterly regret the unfortunate fate of these tools that were part and parcel of a golden age of industrial production we nevertheless have to look at it in the context of its time. The pursuit of “progress” and the rejection of traditional methods of production contributed to the indifference with which this “mouldocide” was met.
The International Centre for Glass Art (CIAV) was quick to understand that moulds were vital to the preservation of the glassblowers’ art and know-how, so in 1999 the Centre decided to collect antique blow moulds to build up a repertoire of unique shapes.
The final closure of the Lorraine Crystal Works in Lemberg (5 km from Meisenthal) in 1999, marked the beginning of the collection for our “Moulothèque”. The Local Community Group of Glassmaking Areas (Communauté de Communes du Pays du Verre), exercised its right of first refusal and was able to save more than 800 metal moulds and 400 wooden moulds from destruction. Since then, many more moulds have been bought from antique dealers, bequeathed to us by former craftsmen or have been donated when local production sites have closed down (The Hartzwiller Crystal Works in 2004, Villeroy & Bosch in Wadgassen (G) in 2012).
Today, this library of tools, called the “Moulothèque”, includes around 1,800 moulds (1,200 in metal and 600 in wood). The collection covers different glassblowing techniques (blow-turning, fixed-turning, optic moulding etc.), which were mainly used to produce different types of containers, most of them classed as “fine tableware”.
The “Moulothèque’s” objective is, first and foremost, one of conservation as the glass moulds are objects which form part of the region’s heritage. The collection is also a way of celebrating past generations of mould makers, these unsung craftsmen who perfected amazing techniques to produce wonderful shapes. Furthermore, these sturdy tools, most of which are still useable (especially the metal ones) have become an inexhaustible resource for the contemporary artists who work with the Meisenthal glassworkers.
Our moulds are classified and kept in technical and numbered order. Up until 2008, a metal mould could only be selected by visiting the section in which it was kept, or by consulting thick files containing all the two dimensional technical details of the mould (work carried out between 1999-2000). After having worked with this empirical system for nearly 10 years, in 2008 it was decided that a first series of 800 metal moulds be digitalised in 3D. The work was carried out in partnership with the digital laboratory of The Graduate School of Art and Design in Valenciennes with the help of its students (under the direction Michel Paysant and Patrick Beaucé). Following on from this work, with the support of the Minister of Culture and the National Heritage Digitalisation Programme, the CIAV developed an initial version of a data base consultable on line, the digital “Moulothèque”.
The digitalisation of this first series of historic moulds has helped in their conservation, their classification and the ease with which they can be selected. Furthermore, this digital data base enables artists, designers and art students etc. who are researching at the CIAV to consult the data and make the best choice of shape for the project they are working on. Since this first version of the digital Moulothèque was put on line we have identified a certain number of areas which could be improved in order to make it more efficient.
Since 2016 improvements have started to be made. We have worked on creating more precise digital protocols for the moulds, written new descriptions for each mould and completed the data base, thus providing a more efficient digital tool that now provides information on more than a 1,000 metal moulds.
Re-vamping objects from existing moulds enables professional creators (designers, artists etc.) or aspiring creators (art students) to structure their thoughts, use research to best advantage and look at the pros and cons of eventual mass production. The digital “Moulothèque” isn’t a tool for designing objects remotely, it’s a technical resource that facilitates in-depth research but which has to be used in-situ. One of the most important things to do before starting any project is to understand the technical aspects of the CIAV in Meisenthal, to learn about the practices available in the workshops, the glassworkers’ skills, the ‘dos and don’ts’ of working with glass etc. In fact, an item produced in a glassblowing mould can’t be classed as a unique and finished piece, as is the case with other lines of production where moulds are used to transform other types of materials. In fact, when it comes to glassmaking, all sorts of complicated and less complicated techniques can be employed to alter the characteristics of an object before or after it has been mould-blown. An almost infinite number of technical combinations can be employed: by “hot working” (the addition of handles, distortion, cropping, other additions, colouring etc.) and/or by “cold working” (cut outs, piercing, sanding, cutting, engraving, silvering etc.), all of which can lead to the creation of different objects from the same basic mould. Even if objects have shapes or uses that have been altered, since they have been produced from a mould it’s then possible for the CIAV to duplicate them and produce a limited series. Otherwise new made to measure blow-moulds would have to be created and that’s rather more costly. For example, numerous prototypes and one-off contemporary items, bearing the brand name “Meisenthal-France”, have been produced from a selection of antique moulds.
Even though the digital “Moulothèque” can be used in a formal way, to research all the technical specifications of a mould (type of mould, height, width, reversibility etc.), it can also be used to gather other information, for example the mould’s original name which often reflects its purpose or what it was used to manufacture in the past. It’s also possible to take a virtual tour to make use of the data in other creative fields (graphic design, poetry, science, history etc.).
Ultimately, this collection of moulds is a living reminder of a once flourishing industry and its use, today, as a research tool strongly reflects the work the CIAV is seeking to do i.e. encourage daily exchanges about how a region’s bygone techniques can be employed to address contemporary issues. The mould is undeniably a tangible element of the region’s heritage but its traditional use and contemporary use require a rich diversity of skills to be brought together, thus an interesting link is created between tangible, technical, physical and non-physical elements of the past.