What to know about collecting uranium glass

Recently, while wandering around my favorite antique store outside of Atlanta, I heard a “click-click” and turned around to see a woman shining a flashlight black on a green plate. A few minutes later, a man joins her with a black box that begins to buzz as he approaches the plate. It was the characteristic sound of a Geiger counter, a tool used to detect radioactivity. Like me, they were looking for a particular type of vintage treasure: the green glow of uranium glass.

Although uranium is often associated with atomic bombs and nuclear disasters, for much of its history it was just another coloring agent. German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered the element in 1789, and glassmakers later began using it to color glass in shades ranging from bright green to pale yellow.

The term “uranium glass” generally describes glass with added uranium oxide, which glows under a black light. Other terms—vaseline glass and depression glass, for example—came later and apply more specifically to lighter yellow glass and glass made during the Great Depression, respectively. Whatever its name, however, it is experiencing a resurgence in popularity among collectors attracted by its eerie luster and perceived danger. TikTok has increased its visibility in recent years, with accounts such as @terrestrialtreasures sharing discoveries with over 77,000 followers.

Whitney Granger, collector and owner of StoryShapedStudios on Etsy, discovered uranium glass in the Facebook group Weird (and Wonderful) Secondhand Finds That Just Need To Be Shared.

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“I didn’t have room for curio cabinets to collect uranium glassware,” she says. “However, at the time, I was very interested in vintage jewellery, and when I saw my first jewel in uranium glass, I was immediately hooked.”

This piece was a 1920s pressed glass bead clapper necklace made by the Neiger brothers in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia. “They are considered among the greatest Czech jewelry designers in history and frequently use uranium glass,” says Granger.

Franz Anton Riedel is cited as one of the first to add uranium to glass, using it in the 1830s in today’s Czech Republic, but similar work was happening simultaneously in the United States, in England and elsewhere. A set of uranium glassware was created for the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. And Fenton, Fostoria and Cambridge glass, found in antique stores, was made in the United States at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

The process is not too different from making other types of glass.

“Most types of tableware glass are what’s called a soda lime glass,” says Katherine Gray, glass artist and judge on Netflix’s “Blown Away.”.” The base is mostly silica, with some “fluxes” or substances that lower the melting point of silica, she adds. Color is added by inserting pieces of long rods of tinted glass into the hot blow tube, or by rolling molten glass in a fine powder of a metal oxide, including uranium.

“Uranium is just a controlled substance, so it’s a little harder to get your hands on, but there are a few people making it in the United States,” says Gray, who created chunks of uranium glass for the items it sells under its name. Hearth series.

The style of glass lost popularity during World War II and the post-war period when uranium was heavily regulated as it was needed for the war effort. In 1958, however, it was deregulated. When they started making glass again, the uranium was depleted, meaning its radioactivity was significantly lower than that of natural uranium. However, it retains its shine. Earlier coins tend to be rarer and more valuable.

About 4 million pieces, including drinking glasses and decorative items, were made in the United States between 1958 and 1978, according to Oak Ridge Associated Universities. After this period, glassmakers increasingly turned to other, more readily available dyes, but some, like Gray, continued to make objects from uranium glass.

But is glass safe? Some items emit small amounts of radiation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The level of radioactivity varies from piece to piece, ranging from less than 1% to 25% by weight, but there is no recognized danger in handling or using uranium glass, according to US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A 2008 study from Nova University in Lisbon determined that radiation levels in uranium glass are comparable to many daily activities, such as air travel or cell phone use. According to Paul W. Frame, senior health physicist at Oak Ridge Associated Universities, eating uranium glass poses minimal risks, and no special treatment is required when disposing of it.

“You are dealing with chemically purified uranium [in uranium glass]says Frame. “Uranium that has been chemically purified generally does not pose such a great risk. It’s not particularly radioactive. This type of uranium, which has not been enriched like the type used for nuclear weapons, has a fraction of the amount of radioactivity, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Budding collectors don’t need to travel far to find uranium glass; it is not uncommon to come across it in stores that sell antiques and other second-hand items. The pieces are also available from online sellers on Etsy and eBay, usually with photos highlighting their fluorescence. Depression glass clubs across the country, including the National Depression Glass Association, also have shows where you can buy from experts.

Here are some tips for starting a collection:

Bring a light. First-time uranium glass hunters should come prepared with a black light flashlight or Geiger counter to ensure the glass is legit. Not all that glows is uranium – some red/orange colored glasses are made with manganese, for example – but uranium usually glows. More experienced collectors might recognize the particular hue of uranium glass on sight without UV light to confirm.

“Make sure the object is glass,” Granger said. “If the object is glass and fluoresces neon green under black light, it contains uranium dioxide 100% of the time.”

Look deeper. Not all items are bright green; other colors include yellow and amber. And uranium glass is not limited to glasses and plates. Look for decorative sugar bowls, mixing bowls and lamps. I even found a uranium glass fishbowl.

Prepare to pay. Prices vary depending on the seller and the rarity of the item, with major brands such as Fenton and Anchor Hocking being more expensive. Glass exhibits tend to price pieces accordingly, but you can find deals at smaller stores. To be sure of an item’s value, use Replacements, Ltd. and books such as “Miller’s Collectibles Handbook & Price Guide”.

Display it proudly. Buy a black light strip with a battery that you can place inside a cabinet to show off your glowing treasures. If you’re short on space, opt for jewelry, like Granger did, or other tiny items, like salt and pepper shakers.

Caroline Eubanks is a writer in Atlanta.

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