Scientists describe glass as "an amorphous solid": neither liquid nor solid, but "somewhere between those states of matter".[1] This fluid identity is reflected in the diversity of glass in Aotearoa: from dark volcanic obsidian and robust preserving jars to radiant stained glass windows and delicate jewellery.

Industrial glass in one form or another has been produced here since the 19th century, and in the 1960s individual makers began to explore more fully the fluid nature of glass and its potential as a creative medium.

By Rigel Sorzano

Glass comes to Aotearoa

Nature was Aotearoa's first glassmaker, creating fulgurites – tubes or crusts of glass formed by lightning striking sand – and obsidian, a volcanic glass widely used by Māori to make cutting and scraping tools.[2] Man-made glass arrived in 1839, when window glass was brought over by boat from Europe, and leadlight windows were soon being made here from imported glass.[3] In the 1890s a number of local artists began to design and make stained and painted glass windows, competing with the imports commissioned from British studios.[4] Decorative glass for the home became more and more popular, but painting and staining were expensive, and after about 1905 coloured glass was largely used instead. Before long, domestic stained glass windows had become mass-produced items, chosen from a pattern-book; after the Second World War they were no longer in demand, and although commissions for ecclesiastical windows continued to be executed in Aotearoa, "the art of making domestic stained glass windows died".[5]

Agee Preserving Jar made by the Australian Glass Manufacturers' Company, c1926 - 1940

© All Rights Reserved Te Papa, GH005164/1 More information ›

In the meantime, some of New Zealand's demands for glass items such as drinking vessels, bottles, jars and lamps, were being met by local glassworks such as the Union Street Glassworks, or the Australian Glass Manufacturers' Company and its subsidiary, Crown Crystal Glass (1950-1987); scientific glassblowing and neon tube bending were also added to the industry mix.[6] These enterprises all depended on workers who were skilled at glassblowing and other 'hot glass' techniques, but until the 1960s the skills and technology embedded in the glass manufacturing industry were more or less restricted to a factory setting.[7]

Into the studio

During the 1960s, changes in technology developed in the United States made it possible to work with hot glass in the studio, and interest in studio glassmaking began to spread internationally. By the end of the decade, glass was beginning to appear on the New Zealand studio craft scene, and during the 1970s more and more craftspeople joined the field, some bringing significant expertise in glassblowing from industry experience or overseas training.[8] By 1983 James Mack, the Director of the Dowse Art Museum, was able to write that "The glass movement is alive and well … We are blessed with a small but growing band of aesthetic masochists who are prepared to stand for many hours a day in front of furnaces raging at temperatures around 1200° Celsius to provide an awakening audience with access to a mysterious and magical material".[9]

Tony Kuepfer, hand blown vase, (c1978)

© All Rights Reserved Te Papa, 1978-0034-1

As this suggests, techniques such as glassblowing and flameworking contributed a crucial impetus to the new movement; but practitioners have explored many different ways of working with glass. An important aspect during the 1970s and 1980s was a revived interest in stained glass, to which artists brought a contemporary vitality, creating screens and autonomous panels as well as glass for use in architectural contexts.[10] Innovative approaches to casting and other kiln-formed or 'warm glass' processes have been developed, and the lost wax technique successfully pioneered by Ann Robinson in the 1980s and 1990s has become a distinctive feature of New Zealand glass.

Evelyn Dunstan, 'Firebush #4' (2011). Lost wax kiln cast 45% lead crystal Gaffer glass, cold worked, sandblasted & acid-etched. Dunstan uses wax to compose complex forms like Firebush, creating and then assembling hundreds of individual elements, some of which may be fired more than once to achieve the desired effect.

© All Rights Reserved Evelyn Dunstan

'Cold glass' work has included lamination, leadlighting, etching, carving and sandblasting, and hot, warm and cold processes and techniques are often combined. For example, a stained glass screen exhibited by Rena Jarosewitsch in 1989 included "4 individual stained glass panes, made of hand blown and variegated Antique glass, individual parts sandblasted and acid polished, painted and fired, leaded, in aluminium frame with black powder coated finish".[11]

Fluid Glass

The amorphous properties of glass create exacting technical demands, but provide as compelling a reason to work with this material as its visual properties of light and colour. Its shape-shifting ability to change from solid to liquid and back again can be harnessed to create a seemingly infinite range of forms, also allowing the artist to add elements incrementally and to draw on the effects of different techniques and processes in combination.

Tony Williams, 'Cicada Brooch' (2003). 18ct gold, platinum, plique à jour and champlevé enamels, diamonds, sapphires. Williams uses several different enamelling techniques in his jewellery, including plique à jour, which forms the wings of this cicada brooch. Translucent enamel has been suspended within a framework of 18ct gold, painstakingly built up over multiple firings with only surface tension holding it in place.

© All Rights Reserved, Tony Williams

The fluid properties of glass also make possible the technique of enameling, in which finely ground glass is heated and fused to metal. Built up in thin layers over multiple firings, enamel can be applied in a painterly fashion, used subtly as an inlay or boldly as a lustrous surface; it may be opaque or translucent, and can even be suspended in an open framework of metal, allowing light to shine through.

These days, glass in Aotearoa is more fluid than ever before, as studio practitioners use a range of techniques to create anything from sculptural objects to light fittings, working on their own, in collaborative studios, or in partnership with architects, designers and fine artists.

Header image:  Kota (scraper), obsidian. c. 1250-1800; New Zealand. © All Rights Reserved. Te Papa ID ME006872.

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Buy now


Sorzano, Rigel. 'Fluid Glass', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.


[1] Ciara Curtin, "Fact or Fiction?: Glass Is a (Supercooled) Liquid." Scientific, 22 February 2008.

[2] Thegn Ladefoged et al., "Social network analysis of obsidian artefacts and Māori interaction in northern Aotearoa New Zealand." PLoS ONE 14(3): e0212941, 2.

[3] Nigel Isaacs, "The Changing Shape of Window Glass." Build, June/July 2007, 118-9, 118. Apart from a period of about 28 years between 1963 to 1991, when it was manufactured in Whangarei by New Zealand Window Glass Ltd., window glass has remained an import in New Zealand (118-9).

[4] Fiona Ciaran, Stained Glass Windows of Canterbury, New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1998, 47. Robert Fraser, for example, set up what may have been the New Zealand's first stained glass studio in about 1893, and designed his own patented kiln to produce painted glass (Ciaran, Stained Glass Windows in Canterbury, 47; Jock Phillips. 'Fraser, Robert Henry', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 11 October 2019). Fraser's studio later became part of Miller Studios, whose stained glass section closed in 1987 (Ciaran, Stained Glass Windows of Canterbury, 47, 51-52).

[5] Ciaran, Stained Glass Windows of Canterbury, Chapter 5; Jock Phillips and Chris Maclean, In the Light of the Past: Stained Glass Windows in New Zealand Houses. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1983, 32, 73, 93-97, 111-2. There were various reasons for this demise, including the postwar housing crisis, and the fact that state houses, which "provided the model for the solid, cheap homes which private builders constructed in the post-war years", did not include leadlights (In the Light of the Past, 112).

[6] Louise Callan, 'Looking into Glass." New Zealand Geographic, January 1989, Issue 1, 68-84; Grace Cochrane, "New Zealand Glass Today", in New Zealand Society of Artists in Glass, New Zealand Glass Art. Auckland: David Bateman Ltd., 2010, 8; Stuart Park, "The Beginnings of New Zealand Glass", in New Zealand Glass Art, 11.

[7] Park, "The Beginnings of New Zealand Glass", 11. The New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts' 1951 Craft Exhibition did include six exhibits of blown glass by an E. F. Proctor, including a cocktail set, bridge scorers, a cigarette holder and a set of swans: New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Catalogue of the Craft Exhibition, 1951. Wellington: The New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, c1951, 33.

[8] Park, "The Beginnings of New Zealand Glass", 11, 12; see also the essays by Robert Bell and James Mack in Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Pacific Glass 83: a selected survey of contemporary glass art from five Pacific rim countries. New Plymouth: The Gallery 1983

[9] James Mack, "Glass Art in New Zealand", in Pacific Glass 83, 10-13, 13.

[10] Park, "The Beginnings of New Zealand Glass", 2; Chris Maclean, "Stained Glass in New Zealand." New Zealand Crafts 7 (September / October 1983) 15-17, 16; Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Lucy Hammonds, 'Crafts and applied arts - Ceramics, glass, jewellery and textiles, 1980s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 October 2019).

[11] Rena Jarosewitsch, "3 Panel Stained Glass Folding Screen", in Paula Savage, Jenny Pattrick, and Margaret Belich, The Human Touch: Contemporary New Zealand Craft at the Bath-House, Rotorua's Art & History Museum, 3 November 1989 - 29 January 1990. Rotorua, N.Z.: Bath-House, Rotorua's Art & History Museum, 1989, 33.

More information

Jane Groufsky, "Three questions for three jewellers", 23 August 2016. 

Peter Cape, Artists and Craftsmen in New Zealand. Auckland: Collins, 1969.

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design. Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2004.

Tony Williams: Goldsmith. Dunedin: Tony Williams Gallery; Nelson: Potton & Burton, 2018.

Grace Cochrane, Smart Works: Design and the Handmade. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 2007.

Sally J Cantwell, "Elizabeth Fraser-Davies: Enamellist." New Zealand Crafts 39 (Autumn 1992), 21-22.

Elizabeth Fraser-Davies, Colin Fraser-Davies, The Enamellists' Handbook. Pitman, 1988.

Stuart Park's blog, "New Zealand Glass." 

New Zealand glass seemed to come full circle as glassblowers Keith Grinter and Nigel Jones worked with artist Dane Mitchell to create over two and a half thousand glass fulgurites for Mitchell's Sketches of Meteorological Phenomena, exhibited in 2017.