American Glass Menageries
By Tanya Madden
Richy Rich has an animal instinct about glass.
In fact, the San Diego-area studio where he creates hand-blown glass smoking accessories and sculptures has become a menagerie for all kinds of colorful creatures. Sitting at the torch, Rich transforms raw glass-making materials into finely detailed figurines – everything from exotic birds to jungle creatures and scorpions – even household pets.
Rich has been at the bench for eight years and is mostly self-taught in the art of glassblowing. He got his start as a salesman for Puff ‘N’ Stuff, where his office window looked out at the lampworkers in the factory. Throughout the day he would sell tobacco products while he watched the artists create their pieces.
Always wanting to sell something he’d made himself, Rich started collecting books and videos on the art of glassblowing and saved enough money to buy some basic equipment. He paid some of the artists who he’d met to teach him the all-important fundamentals.
“I started spending morning to night on the torch and became mesmerized with the allure, beauty, and grace of glasswork,” says Rich.
He first learned to create the traditional basic pipes and jars. As his skills improved he wanted to try making something more elaborate. Animals seemed like perfect models, but most of the attempts he’d seen to try and recreate realistic animals in glass had left him less than impressed – especially dolphins, which he recalls looked more like pollywogs. Fortunately he lived near SeaWorld and could study the animals up close.
“I decided to spend some time at the shark and dolphin tanks watching them swim around so I could understand the nuances of their bodies.”
While American Glass, the company he started with his partner Raymundo Ramirez, still gets requests for conventional work, Rich has found a niche crafting animal-related pipes and glass art.
Rich and his crew of artists start with the finest German glass and form their pieces without the help of molds. The pieces range in size from the littlest quarter-inch heart all the way to a giant hammerhead shark stretching nearly two feet. Rich has become known for his double-inside-out creations where he puts one piece inside of another, such as a scuba diver inside of a whale or mermaid within a dolphin.
What makes Rich’s glass animals unique is they can also be used as a pipe to smoke your favorite tobacco or herb blend. Their pink flamingo standing in a pond of blue cobalt glass with little ripples has the bowl is on its back and you smoke out of the head. Whales and dolphins, for instance, have a realistic blowhole carburetor instead of one on the side.
“Every animal is like a Rubik’s Cube. Not only do we do the traditional glassblowing processes, but when we’re done fuming and adding color, we have to shave the body and add things like legs, tails, faces, and ears,” he says. “Depending on the animal, there’s a certain order that has to be followed so the piece doesn’t break in the process of being blown.”
Wanting to continue servicing the smoke industry but hopefully transcend into mainstream markets, Rich’s latest inspiration is man’s best friend. American Glass currently has a kennel of over 60 breeds of dogs that can be turned into glass pipes or artistic sculptures.
The process starts with a picture of an owner’s pet used to recreate the pooch in “God-like” detail right down to their genitalia using small, medium, or large glass tubing.
According to Rich, the easiest dog to form is the Dachshund, with its simple wiener-like body, short legs, and floppy ears. The most challenging are the Husky, German Shepard, and Chihuahua because of their tails and coats.
“Pulling a tail into a curved loop or making it hollow truly takes the skills of a master,” Rich explains. “To create the impression of hair, we use a combination of layering glass, loop stitching, coloring, and folds we put in with the edge of a blunted butter knife.”
“Our dogs are fumed with gold or silver on the inside, and whether they’re used as a pipe or simply admired as an art piece, the thin coating of metals will change color over time as it becomes oxidized. No two dogs ever change color exactly the same, so each one is unique.”
The finished dogs stand from 2 ½ inches to more than 7 inches tall and retail for $200 to $1000. American Glass will soon be offering retailers “Doggie Box” displays, giving customers the opportunity to order faithful recreations of their own pets.
“These are awesome animals,” remarks Cande Copeland, of Contemporary Glass Work in Grand Junction, Colorado, one of more than 400 retailers that carry American Glass creations. “Being an artist, what I really notice about their work is the attention to detail in the anatomy. The colors are also pleasingly realistic. All of the critters seem very alive.”
“God created the animals, not you or me,” concedes Rich. “All we do is make them out of glass.”
“We strive to produce pieces that perform as well as they look,” he adds. “Quality is something you can’t see – it’s engineered from the instant a piece is started to the moment it’s completed.”
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