Since the first time someone thought to heat and combine sand, sodium carbonate and lime, the drive to create original pieces of glasswork has skyrocketed in popularity. Many glass-blowing schools for both artistic and scientific uses have opened in the United States. Operating along with this larger glass-blowing establishment have been the artists who supply local pipe and smoke shops, not to mention vending at concert festivals across the country.
These less-commercial artists operate largely on their own resources and time, eking out a living in cramped workshops located in garages and broken-down school buses. Their ability to survive is often dependent on self-taught skills and an ability to stay on the cutting edge of an industry that has become flooded with talent.
Moe Lafreniere was like many other wandering hippies in this country when he came upon the craft five years ago. Originally from Vermont, the former Phish-head found himself looking for career direction in Olympia, Wash., when he came upon glass blowing.
"I was basically trained by three different people," Lafreniere said. "The first four months were comprised of me standing next to someone and watching. After that I became a full-on apprentice for another four to five months."
Lafreniere, like many embedded in the culture, began his career making glass pipes before creating other products such as paper weights and oil lamps. With five years of experience behind him, he has begun to master his craft.
Unfortunately, exceptional skills in doing what he loves have not translated into financial success.
"The work market in glass blowing is very difficult now because so many people are into it," Lafreniere said. "It has become increasingly difficult to make money doing it, and it's mainly because nobody wants to pay for the art in the pieces."
While Lafreniere has made upwards of $300 a piece selling to local shops such as Rock 'N' Robin's and Higher Education, the work has been inconsistent. A flood of talented glass blowers has entered the market, causing prices to drop while the artistry and skills involved have increased.
Simply getting started in the industry has become an increasing challenge during the past few years. Lafreniere, working with a modest setup out of a friend's garage, has more than $3,000 invested in equipment such as a torch, kiln and protective glasses.
"Finding someone to teach you how to blow glass has become harder," Lafreniere said. "I would let someone watch me, but wouldn't give them full direction because it took me so long to master the skills on my own."
Russell Howells began blowing glass three years ago when he first came to Fort Collins, met a glass blower and was asked to be his apprentice. Howells said it took him three months to learn how the process worked before he even began practicing the trade.
"It takes a lot of work and dedication to actually get good at it," he said.
Competition from other glass blowers is not the only challenge facing the industry. The new presidential administration elected five years ago holds new values and priorities, and the effects are being felt throughout the glass-blowing community.
"When John Ashcroft became attorney general he started a project named 'Operation Pipeline,' which shut down Jerome Baker Designs (formerly a major glass-blowing studio), shut down shops in Pennsylvania and Florida and landed Tommy Chong in jail," said Liz Goznel, the owner of Space Glass, a local company that has been in business for 10 years. "Business was already significantly down after (Sept. 11, 2001), but with the added pressure of 'Operation Pipeline,' income has dropped to a quarter of what it was even four years ago."
Goznel said shops that regularly made $200 orders are now asking for $50 worth of merchandise, if any at all. As inflation has maintained its course over the last 10 years, she had to drop prices to remain competitive. In addition, the company has cut staff, sold equipment and Goznel is training for a new career.
Howells, who works at Kind Creations, 828 S. College Ave., said he makes pieces ranging from $3 all the way up to $1,000, but it is up to the glass blower to put a price on the artwork. He also said the government will become more involved as the pipe industry grows.
"Ashcroft has made it difficult and has affected the economy of glass," Howells said.
Along with the growth of the industry has come demand for more types of glass products. Jewelry incorporating modern techniques is becoming increasingly popular in the forms of bracelets, earrings and rings. Jars, oil lamps and wine glasses are more often being produced by artists who wish to expand their mastery beyond the stereotypical pipe-store paraphernalia.
The glass-blowing industry, like many others in the United States, is encountering a crossroad with its future in the balance. If industry professionals are going to survive, they might need to be as innovative as the products they are creating.