About Liuli or "Liu li" Glass Jewelry - Origin & History

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In the world of Art and High Fashion, an ancient tradition is becoming a new vogue. Originally unknown outside of Asia, Liuli crystal glass artwork and jewelry is seeing a surge in popularity not only in Asia, but also Europe and North America. While “Liuli or ”琉璃” is literally the ancient Chinese word for Glass, it is used in modern times to refer to multi-hued crystal glass created by hand using an ancient glass casting technique. This method of glass styling closely resembles the long popular French form of glass shaping known as “pate-de-verre” that literally translates to “glass paste”.

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The Process of Creating Liuli Glass
The creation of Chinese Liuli Jewelry is different from the processes for most modern day glass. For tableware or jewelry, glass blowing is favored since one re-useable mold can be employed. Liuli creation uses a type of kiln casting method sometimes referred to as a “lost-wax” technique that uses finely powdered glass mixed with a binding substance, colorants, and lead. Depending on the mold used, solid or semi-hollow shapes are achievable.

Like other types of crystal glass, Liuli normally possess high lead content that gives Liuli its characteristic weight, shine, and sound when clinked together.

This method of glass creation is notoriously difficult due to a number of factors including the instability of the molds used and the high firing temperatures needed to meld the glass paste into solid form. The method each artisan and studio uses differs slightly, but most require a total of 10-16 steps to complete a single piece

The process of using powdered glass to form the main body of each piece usually means that exact replication is not possible; thus each piece will have slight color variations from one to the next. This amorphous and chaotic nature to the Liuli creation process is also a boon for crafters, since a wide diversity of color combinations and designs are possible enabling truly unique designs to be made.

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Beginnings of an Art form
Archaeological evidence suggests that Liuli was being made and used some 2500-1500 years ago, most likely around the Tang Dynasty era. In its earliest form, Liuli may have served as decorative tiles used in the construction of beautifully designed roofs for nobles and the wealthy commonly seen in ancient Chinese architecture. Eventually, Liuli was likely incorporated into stand alone artwork pieces and further modified into wearable form. It’s not surprising that an art form like Liuli could evolve into so many areas during this period, as the Tang Dynasty was an era that saw a proliferation of art and culture with numerous art forms reaching their apex.

Other notable uses involving similar types of glass casting have been observed in places such as ancient Egypt and the Middle East.

Despite the beautiful designs achievable using this method, the actual process is arduous and infamously difficult, leading ultimately to its abandonment as more efficient methods of glass creation were discovered, such as the glass blowing used by the Romans.

Modern Day Liuli Art
In European cultures, popularity for this style of glass casting followed the French revival of this art form in the 19th century. In Asia, this style saw continued use by artisans up to modern times; however, turmoil due to multiple conflicts and foreign invasions during the last few centuries disrupted not only glass art creation but most art and cultural pursuits in general. Resurgence of widespread Liuli creation began as relative economic and political stability returned to the region in the latter half of the 20th century. Though creation of Liuli was being practiced by artisans at this time, their relative obscurity and sparse numbers kept demand for this style at a minimum.

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It was in the late 1980s that two of the most famous Liuli artisans began the first studio in China using this form of glass creation exclusively. An award winning Taiwanese actor and director couple, Loretta Yang and Chang Yi, left their relatively prosperous lives in the film industry to pursue glass art making (see "Loretta Yang: The woman behind the Liuli phenomenon", Culture Express, China Central Television, 04/17/2007). Over the last 20 years their highly creative and detailed pieces have been exhibited in shows and museums around the world such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Palace Museum in Bejing. As a result, they have been a predominant factor in lifting Liuli from relative obscurity to high fashion art in both Asia and internationally.

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Today, with the economic rise of China and other East Asian countries, the regions cultural styles and influences have begun to spread. The growing demand for Liuli and similarly styled glass creations have driven artisans in Asia to create both classic art pieces as well as modern unique designs, such as using Liuli inlaid in silver jewelry and creating car decoration pieces.

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