American Made - It Matters
Grassroots Glass vs Imported Mass Production
by guest blogger Shane Michael
glassblower, family man
@glassknowledge on Instagram
This is an increasingly hot topic of debate. There is no authority on the subject and depending on how you stack your priorities, there isn't necessarily a right answer. I have constructed this article to explain each of these arguments clearly, allowing for anyone who reads this to arrive at an informed opinion of their own.
Currently the U.S. is the largest glass market in the world, and growing rapidly into a multi-billion dollar industry. Over the last 10 years there is a demand for glass like never before. The debate centers around where the glass should come from. On one side, we have what I've labeled "grassroots glass". This is your small studios and individual glass artists (there are a few artisans in other parts of the world also) and larger American cooperatives blowing high quality tubes and rigs.
On the other side of the equation we have "imported mass-produced glass". These products are primarily, but not exclusively, coming out of factories in China and India. They're packaged (disguised as something they're not, btw) and sent through Customs into the United States to be sold in headshops and gas stations. While this sounds like capitalism at work, there are many issues to consider. The grassroots community of American glassblowers - of which I am a member - would like you to consider the imported companies' unsafe work conditions, unsafe products, and stolen designs. They, on the other hand, want to limit your thinking to one thing - low price.
Price is the only leg the
imported mass-produced industry has to stand on. With foreign companies like
Alibaba and DHGate
at the helm, the industry is mass producing glass at incredibly low prices. While the methods used to produce these products may have ethical implications, the result is a product that cheaply (and often dangerously) mimics high quality American glass for a fraction of the cost. These dirt cheap pieces are then put in a catalog and mass marketed to head shops in a convenient easy accessible catalog/website. Through the internet these companies are rapidly gaining an even firmer foothold in the American market by offering their glass directly to customers online, including on Amazon.
These products are brought into the USA in bulk, and dishonestly declared to U.S. Customs officials as "dishes" or "raw glass tubing" to avoid paying proper import fees on tobacco products. It is very true that the grassroots glass community has an incredibly hard time competing on such an uneven playing field.
"In this world, you get what you pay for."
~ Kurt Vonnegut
When looking at any product it's important to know where it came from. The American grassroots glass movement is mostly individual glassblowers and small studios. These artists set their own hours, create their own work environment, and determine their own wage. There are a few larger glass companies employing glassblowers, and, because we're in America, they're paying fair wages. With U.S. environmental and safety regulations, and access to high-end equipment, the working conditions of grassroots glassblowers is generally very good.
It's a far different picture for mass produced imports. Most glass blown in foreign countries is done in cramped factories, with very poor or nonexistent ventilation of toxic fumes. These factories are set up to produce as much glass as possible, as fast as possible, and with the lowest raw material costs possible. Glass blowers are lined up in rows far too close to one another, paid incredibly low wages and forced to work unreasonable hours. The equipment used by these factory workers is often not even proper glass working tools. Most of these factories use machines and tools meant for other industrial jobs such as metal work or stone work. Due to the lack of worker safety standards in these countries, there's a considerable number of factory workers injured every year. There is an overall lack of care or concern from the factory's view point. Workers' safety is not a priority - at all.
When it comes to glass blowing, product safety is the most important thing to consider. Given the nature of functional art, glass pieces are intended to be smoked through. Product safety standards need to be in place. The reason quality raw materials matter is because borosilicate glass doesn't release harmful particles to be inhaled when heated. To create a safe usable product a certain amount of glass training and experience is required. A well-made piece of glass will have no cracks, clean welds between glass parts, walls of even thickness, be properly annealed, and be free of any glass dust, paint or sharp edges.
The American grassroots glass community has done a good job addressing these safety issues. With better access to proper tools, better techniques, and higher industry standards, glass made in this country is typically safe to use the moment you receive the work. Most artists within this movement learn to blow glass one-on-one from a mentor or from the growing number of professionals teaching in galleries and schools . Traditionally, the only way to become a glassblower was to know someone who was willing to teach you. All these scenarios mean the artist learns proper techniques and safety in producing and selling glass.
Producers of mass-produced import glass take shortcuts in creating their product. Every short cut lowers their cost of production, but it also means the product is weak and unsafe to use. At worst, a few of the shortcuts can have lethal consequences.
Chinese and Indian factories often use bandsaws and drills to make slits in percs or to poke a hole for the bowl. The right way is to heat up the glass and pop a hole naturally. While this is harder to do, the result is a piece of glass that is 100% one piece with no stress added to the glass. When foreign factories use those drills and bandsaws to cut and puncture the glass they are weakening the entire piece and it will break, even with customary care. The biggest problem of all, and it's chilling, by drilling and cutting glass using improper tools, glass shards and glass dust are created. If not removed from the interior of the piece consumers can end up inhaling glass dust which can lead to Silicosis or even lung cancer. When on the rare occasion American artists cut or drill glass (usually only soft glass water pipes), they use a diamond edged saw or drill bit which won't create as much stress on the glass, and then take the extra time to meticulously clean the inside of the piece. Another health issue connected to mass-produced imports is the use of paints applied to the interior to create the illusion of colored glass. This is dangerous as particles from the paint can end up in your lungs. Factories overseas have no qualms selling these harmful products as there are no legal consequences. Safety concerns should be at the very front of every shopper’s mind as they look to purchase a new piece of glass.
Even if you find a seemingly sturdy Chinese pipe that is made with thick glass, how do you know it was annealed in the kiln properly? How do you know if it was made from pure borosilicate glass? Moreover, even if you carefully wash the glass dust out of it, there is no guarantee it will not crack around the mouthpiece the first, or the second, or the fifty-seventh time you put your lips to it. There is no telling when it will fail; it could just be sitting on the shelf or tabletop and you hear that dreaded *tink. Clearly, imported pipes are not only inferior in form and function, but are a potential health risk as well
Another angle this must be viewed from is how purchasing from foreign mass-manufacturers impacts our local economies. When you buy from the American grassroots glass community you're helping sustain small businesses, run by the artists and their families. With over 70,000 glass blowers in the USA alone, there are plenty of opportunities to support their artistic work. The widely known glassblower Salt once said, " The reason we call it a spoon is it helps feed our families." When you purchase a product online from an overseas company, that money is now circulating far away from here. It will never come back into small local communities. This is a problem with many industries that source their supplies from outside the USA.
"The reason we call it a spoon is it helps feed our families"
~ Salt, award winning glass artist
(Pictured is Oregon artist, Lacey Walton, LaceFace Glass) One of the most amazing aspects of the American grassroots glass scene is the push to continually create and innovate. With new tech and designs seeming to pop up every day, innovation is at the heart of the American glass movement. Artists spend their time honing their skills in hopes of carving out a small niche in this expanding industry. It has been this artistic drive that has brought about new colors, new seals, new heating techniques, and more. It has pushed the American glass industry to where it is today. It is this spirit that keeps the artisanal glass movement alive and moving forward .
Compare that to the foreign mass-produced glass manufacturers, which have a history of not caring about innovation at all; it's not necessary for them. It has been much more profitable to just copy American trends and designs that are already very successful here. Sadly, in the 90's a few artists were contracted by multiple foreign companies to teach them to blow basic hand pipes. Soon the market was flooded with cheap stringer and inside out spoons and other small hand pipes. Now, the copycat industry is lightning quick knocking off new American designs and trends. In some cases, pipe designs are stolen, copied, and available to the market within days. This parasitic style of business does nothing to help the American industry.
The U.S. functional glass scene should not be driven by stupidly low online prices - or a forced race to the bottom on margins for store owners - because it is so much more than that. It is a national treasure.
Since the days of the Grateful Dead tour this industry has been pushed by artists and by culture. If we want to keep this amazing thing we have collectively created, then we must support the artists who help make this culture great. It means supporting those already established artists, and those who are up and coming. You may pay a little more, but the feeling of being part of something much bigger is special.
"You can make bread and butter with a spoon."
~ Redbeard, award winning glass artist
The American grassroots glass community is filled to the brim with passionate artists who love, live, and breathe this industry and culture every day. In the end what is the right answer to the question, "who should supply the expanding glass market here in the US?" My answer - American glassblowers.
With your support... we are growing!
Perhaps leave a comment in Reply below. Are you with us? ~ Kim