It’s hard to argue with Brendan I. Koerner who, in his 2006 piece for The New York Times, says “The store-bought paperweight is something of a metaphor for pointlessness, since any object heavier than a few ounces can prevent documents from blowing away. The water-filled globes sold at souvenir shops may be explicitly intended to keep papers in place, but that doesn't mean they perform the task any better than a hunk of gravel or an old alkaline battery.”
Still, they’re a craft fair and gift shop staple, a classic desktop bauble, and gift for any occasion. They come in all shapes and sizes, and at all prices, ranging from the low-end office supply store model to the $425 sterling silver version from Tiffany & Co, to the ones that have sold for thousands of dollars at auction houses. There’s even a Paperweight Collectors Association.
So where do these ubiquitous objects come from?
The invention of paper has been traced back to 105 CE, during the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) in China, so it stands to reason that the paperweight would soon follow. Listed in the Catalogue of the Collection of Chinese Exhibits at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904 are a number of paperweights; the earliest, made from white jade and shaped like real and mythical beasts, dates as far back as the Han dynasty. In Wei Zhang’s The Four Treasures: Inside the Scholar’s Studio, he explains the four key tools for classical Chinese scholars: the writing brush, the ink stone, the ink stick, and paper. He also notes that while they weren’t among the top four treasures, paperweights were also common tools in the scholars’ studios.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, the paperweight’s popularity had grown beyond China, reaching to other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States. The Oxford English Dictionary places the first written usage of the word “paperweight” in an 1822 auction listing from The Times (London), while Oxford Art Online’s "paperweight" entry says they were introduced around 1830 in Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) and then first made in Europe in 1845 by Venetian glass artist Pietro Bigaglia.
The Corning Museum of Glass cites the presentation of these Venetian works at the Vienna Industrial Exposition in 1845 and those displayed by artists at the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations held in London as primary reasons behind the glass weight trend.
But if you’re ever meeting with a collector or browsing an estate sale, make sure to study up on the three big names in paperweights: Clichy, Saint-Louis, and Baccarat. All three French glass companies began creating paperweights during the 19th century, and some of their original pieces can go for over $100,000 at auction. Who knows, that paperweight on your grandparents’ mantle may be all you need to get out of debt (and then some).