Jablonec Part Two
The next day we set out early for a 9 am appointment with the button factory, but ended up being hopelessly lost with Apple and Google maps giving us divergent directions! When finally found, the factory was in two 19th century buildings in a narrow, picturesque valley just outside of Jablonec. Like many Czech businesses, it did not have an identifying sign outside, which seemed in keeping with the low level of commercialization we found throughout the countryside.
Once inside, our first task was to peruse the many sample boards of buttons currently being created by the company. This alone seemed overwhelming, but then we realized that any pattern of button could be made in dozens of finishes or with any color of glass!
We have several antique fly buttons in our museum, but were amazed they were being recreated here in such a multiplicity of finishes! We’re still wondering: why did women want to wear flies on their blouses, no matter how lovely the button?
Next we saw 100 years of button history laid out in the collection of tools and processes inherited by this one company. Our host proudly showed us his extensive collection of button positives or “kernels” that are the first step in making a glass button. He explained that these were carved by hand with great skill from hardened steel during the late 19th to early 20th centuries, when the Bohemian button business was at its height. Few new ones are made today because of the prohibitive expense.
The next step is to take the kernel, or positive, and place it on this huge, amazing press from about 1908. In the video you will see that it is foot powered, no electricity involved! This press takes a softer piece of metal and pushes it down onto the kernel to create a negative of the design that becomes the button mold. If the button has a glass self-shank, kernels exist for the back of the button as well.
Through this door there be treasures. . .hundreds (if not thousands) of antique button molds and tongs!
This room sealed the deal for a return trip to the Czech Republic; as time goes on it will be possible for us to choose molds and even kernels that have not been used in decades to make buttons just for us!
Now it was time to visit the finishing rooms, where we saw buttons go from their just-pressed form to completely finished.
(L & R) Buttons made of colored glass with metal shanks. (Center) Buttons that have glass or self shanks can be pressed several at a time in special molds.
Next we saw the process by which the rough edges are trimmed off of the buttons: much like trimming the edges of a waffle that has leaked over the edges of the waffle iron!
As with the mold press, this small machine was non-electric, hand-powered by a crank on its right side. It operated much like a manual can-opener!
Susan tried her hand at trimming the buttons, and was amazed how easy this simple, manual machine made it!
The next step involved the first fairly modern, electric run machine that we had seen. It was a large grinding wheel to which several trimmed but still sharp-edged buttons could be mechanically held to smooth their edges. The water keeps friction from heating the buttons to the point of breaking, as well as the dangerous (to breathe) silica dust out of the air.
Now with edges trimmed and ground smooth, the buttons were ready for painting. With almost all patterns, gold and silver luster paint (made with actual gold and platinum) are hand applied to the top of the buttons to accent the design. (It was just such a glittering, gold lustered Czech glass button from my grandmother’s button box that in 1985 gave me the idea to transform buttons into jewelry!)
As they are painted, the buttons are placed directly onto trays for the kiln. The firing takes about 30 minutes at a very high temperature (higher for the metallic highlights than for the painted base color).
The making of a Czech glass button is a painstaking, labor-intensive process. Buttons by and large are only made to order, not kept in stock, so we were able to come home with just a very few vintage pieces or one-of-a-kind samples, several of which you see above. We will soon be offering a small number special pieces made with these on a first come, first served basis–keep an eye on our social media for notifications!
Now begins the seemingly impossible task of picking out the designs, colors and finishes we will order for our winter 2017 introductions—the possibilities are really almost endless!!