As well as its ceramic collections, the Musée Ariana also has over 2500 glass pieces, dating mainly from the 16th century to the present day. Around 250 of these feature in the museum’s permanent display and illustrate the technological advances, changes in taste and regional specializations that have marked the history of glass.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Venetian glass was a benchmark for quality. Its cristallo glass (so called because it resembled rock crystal), sometimes with diamond-point etching or filigree decoration, raised glass to the level of a luxury commodity. It was gradually imitated throughout Europe and gave rise to a Venetian style glass that is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the original. At the same time, the ancient and medieval tradition of coloured glass (by means of metallic oxides) continued, as shown in the work of the French glassmaker Bernard Perrot (1619-1709), and by pieces produced in the northern Alps in the 17th and 18th centuries. Painting on coloured or clear glass with polychrome enamels was also common, especially in central Switzerland (Flühli glass). In Prague, in the late 16th century, the gem cutter Gaspard Lehmann (1563/5-1623) adapted the wheel engraving technique to glass. This process, which allowed deep incisions to be made in the surface, soon eclipsed diamond-point engraving. It also combined well with a new, particularly hard and shiny potash-based glass developed under the impetus of Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor and patron (1552-1612): glass crystal. Over the course of the 17th century, Bohemian crystal ousted the Venetian cristallo and conquered the entire European market.
In England, the manufacturer George Ravenscroft (1632-1683) rapidly developed another type of crystal, replacing the potash by lead oxide. Between 1674 and 1676, he thus became the inventor of English crystal (also called lead crystal), which was even harder and more resistant than Bohemian crystal. This innovative material spread in turn to the continent, and helped to consolidate trading relationships with the Netherlands, where glass engraving was a speciality.