Welcome to the hot button issue of the functional art market, the debate is now entering almost old enough to drive a vehicle in many states. This is an emotional issue for many companies and artists because, quite literally, competing with import glass is taking food out of their employees and families mouths. The arguments are actually fairly disparate - Quality, working conditions, legality, and respect for original designs or brands - but it all comes down to this: Which of them is actually better for the collector and consumer?
Let’s start with what many industry analysts agree is the jumping off point for independent artists and American production companies truly fighting imported merchandise - Operation Pipe Dreams goes into action on February 24, 2003. Early that morning agents, operating under the direction of then Attorney General John Ashcroft, raided hundreds of different locations around the country and arrested fifty-five different people. In short order, with the prosecution of Tommy Chong as well as other well-known American pipe manufacturers, glass shops and distributors across the country went underground, online, or flat out of business. At this point everyone in America immediately stopped buying, or needing, functional glass art. At this point smoke shops across the country began looking literally ANYWHERE to satisfy the demands of their customer base and previously overlooked importers started making frantic calls to factories in China, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
So let’s get into the arguments, for and against, huh? It breaks down like this: The only pro for import glass is price. Ta da. It seems like such a simple answer but it really is the truth, you buy import glass if you cannot afford anything better or if you break glass like it is spun sugar. Why is American glass more expensive? The quick and dirty answer is that the American government does not subsidize manufacturing or handicraft but the Chinese, specifically, do and it keeps the labor prices MUCH lower. You are also paying for the cost of living in the United States - health care, rent, materials, and all of the same bills everyone living there deals with. No one ever likes hearing it stated so bluntly so we can break the two main arguments down, too.
Quality - American production companies, and almost all well-known solo artists, spend thousands of dollars and man hours doing iterative prototyping (they make it again and again until they cannot improve it any further or are satisfied) single pieces of work. Import glass is manufactured under the mantra of “Make it faster, make it cheaper” and it shows in every aspect of the work. Lower quality supplies, thinly worked glass, bad welds and joints, no thought to durability - These are the hallmarks of imported functional production glass.
Working Conditions - Following their mantra of the most work for the least money, import glass manufacturers pay incredibly low wages and have minimal safety equipment or training. This means that there is a very real human cost to imported glass that is rarely discussed by the customer. Beyond the safety hazards many of these companies do far more than just make smoking devices, this also means that cross-contamination of materials is a reality. Would you buy a piece of plumbing from Flint, MI, to take home and use with your friends and loved ones? This is the ONE area where United States Federal guidelines mean we are all better off working here.
Over the ten years since the founding of Illuzion Glass Galleries we have been proud to contribute to the resurgence of the American functional art glass scene, even as more import glass showed up on the market and forced prices ever higher. We continue to be proud to support American companies and solo artists because they treat glassblowing as the intricate and innovative art form that it is - Overseas this medium is not treated as an art but as a manufacturing job, where designs are copied instead of created. By purchasing American glass you are contributing to the legacy of American craftsmanship as well as helping to earn functional glass art respect within the broader art community.