Tabletop Conviviality: Swiss Glass and Pottery in Geneva

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Schnaps & Rösti – Enamelled Glass and Swiss Pottery 17th-19th Centuries, at the Musée Ariana, Geneva, Switzerland

There are times when you put off going to an exhibition, because you kinda think it’ll be nice… but next weekend.  And then you get to the week before it’s due to close, and have to do a panic visit.  And then you wonder why on earth you’d put it off for so long.

On the surface of it, an exhibition looking at glassware for schnapps and plates for rösti doesn’t sound that interesting.  The advertising posters around Geneva made it look like they had some attractive items on display, and I assumed it was going to be a small affair, that we’d be in and out of quite quickly.  Wrong again.

The exhibition space is in the cellars of the majestic Ariana Museum, and it is vast!  As you can see, it’s not a pretty space, but honestly, why waste money prettifying it?  The exhibition focussed on the Ariana’s own collections.  Yes, there were rösti plates, and schnapps flasks, but the exhibition really looked at a range of Swiss pottery and glass which were everyday items, not expensive objects for the wealthy.  As such, they gave a really interesting insight into the lives of Swiss people, because their images and their mottos show, to some extent, the interests and preoccupations of their consumers.

A quick disclaimer: I have tried to translate the Swiss German mottos on the glass and pottery – a combination of my bad High German and Google translate.  Unfortunately, I know I haven’t been too successful with many of them, while some remained utterly baffling.  I should note that the museum hadn’t translated them into French on the tags either.  Anyway, Sister Chickpea has valiantly tried to help.  We’ve done our best.  Be kind.  And submit translations, should you wish!

Enamelled Glass

It was the Siegwart brothers who brought the enamelled glass industry to the canton of Lucerne in 1723.  They settled in the Entlebuch district and soon several other firms opened up in the same region, and they all basically produced glassware that looks the same.  Since it’s hard to distinguish firms, the term “Flühli glass” is used to refer to their collective style.  The production continued until about 1820, when it fell out of popularity.

The designs on the glass have recurring motifs – lots of flowery designs, running animals and moaning mottos.  The range of glass vessels that they decorated was broad, from the flasks and glasses to apothecary jars and perfume bottles.  This shows how widespread the appeal of enamelled glass was – it was used by all levels of society.

The glass was often mould-blown, and the painting was then applied (the paint had a metallic oxide base) and fixed in place by a second firing.


While pottery production occurred around Switzerland, it was the canton of Bern that had what are regarded as the most important workshops.  There are surprising differences in style and decoration between these workshops, which flourished at different times and were often inspired by a single potter and his personal aesthetic.  So let’s look at them by group, shall we?

Pottery of Langnau

The pottery of the Emmantal town of Langnau has a distinctive style which was developed by a number of potters.  The motifs were applied to a white background, then roller stamped and engraved, with a coating of a greenish glaze applied at the end.


Toys were made by the potters’ children, and were very popular, especially with visiting tourists. There are no makers’ marks, so they’re impossible to attribute to workshops.  There are many different shapes and some are cuter than others…

Abraham Marti

The utterly charming works of Abraham Marti are considered gems of Swiss pottery.  They are incredibly cute.  Marti worked in Blankenbourg in the Simmental valley from around 1749-1789.


So just when you think that nothing can be better than the Marti plates, you stumble on the Heimberg pottery.  The main pottery centres of the canton of Bern in the 18th century were concentrated in the Heimberg region – by around 1850, there were 80 odd potteries in the area, employing journeymen and women to decorate the pieces.  Again, there are no marks and inscriptions to identify individuals, so the generic “Heimberg manner” is used to describe the work.

Many of the plates are for the Swiss potato-based rösti – the plates have an outward sloping rim.

I have a fondness for what I’m going to call the ‘folk’ style – not just because it looks like I’ve made it myself, but because it’s simple and honest, and touching in its depictions of the preoccupations and interests of ordinary people. It’s also really interesting to see figures dressed in Regency costume on this sort of work.

So In Summary

It’s a real shame that these objects were only on display for a temporary exhibition, as they give a fascinating glimpse into traditional Swiss life.  I don’t know if any of them would usually be on permanent display in the main body of the Ariana Museum, but I know that most of them are from the archives, so back into storage they will go.  I’m glad I got a chance to see the collection and now I just have to keep my eyes open for one of those enamelled glasses in the flea markets….









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