In 1884, the Rookwood Pottery stunned the pottery world with the creation of what they called the “Tiger Eye” Glaze. The effect was remarkable in that deep under a high gloss finish the eye could detect shimmering gold effects that moved with the angle of the light. Pieces of Tiger Eye Glaze pottery from Rookwood are highly prized by collectors, and fetch huge prices at auctions. The origins of the Tiger Eye glaze are remarkable, and few people have heard the story of its discovery.
In October of 1884, the winter came early and temperatures were the lowest they had been in 30 years. On the coldest night of that month, the daytime workers had finished a batch of Mahogany Glaze pieces and placed them into a kiln before heading home for the evening. The Mahogany Glaze was a yellow-tinted glaze applied to red clay bodies, giving the pieces a deep red glossy finish. Most of the pieces had been under-slip decorated by various artists with various flora and fauna, and were to be fired overnight. Things did not go as planned.
A worker was left to spend the night at the pottery, tasked with regulating the fuel to the kiln and several other duties to be performed throughout the night. Some of these duties required him to go outside the pottery and then return again, dozens of times. Being all alone, and being the coldest night of the year, he decided to keep himself warm with some sips of alcohol. He adjusted the fuel, ran errands, and drank all night.
In the morning when the regular staff arrived, they found the workman passed out drunk, and the kiln destroyed. He had added so much fuel at irregular rates that it has cracked and collapsed. He was summarily dismissed as it was assumed he had destroyed thousands of dollars of inventory as well as the kiln. For the next few days business went on at the pottery utilizing the other kilns as a team was formed and organized to tear down the remains of the destroyed kiln. When they began removing the rubble, they were amazed to find that much of the pottery was still intact, and it had been endowed with an unknown crystalline property in the glaze that made it shimmer in the light. They immediately dubbed the pieces “Tiger Eye” after the stone which it bore a passing resemblance to.
The worker was quickly brought back to the pottery and rehired, and for weeks he was questioned in detail about everything he done throughout the night in hopes of recreating the Tiger Eye Glaze. Unfortunately, he could remember very little.
In December of 1884 Rookwood Pottery embarked upon a monumental effort to recreate the effect by various methods including varying the heat during firing. Hundreds of experimental attempts were made before achieving success, and even that success was difficult to duplicate consistently. It was said that less than one out of one hundred was successful, and even the successful pieces varied wildly in quality. Because of this, Rookwood charged many times the price of standard pieces for Tiger Eye, and they always sold quickly. Most pieces were between five and seven inches tall because the failure rates increased dramatically with size.
What is widely considered the crowning achievement of the Tiger Eye Glaze came near the end of its production in 1900. Created in 1899, it was decorated by Albert valentine. Dubbed the “Uranus” Vase, this monumental piece stood 18 1/8 inches tall. It won the Grand prix in Paris in 1900 and forever established Rookwood among the premiere art pottery companies of the world. Very few pieces of Tiger Eye Glaze followed as the tastes of their customers turned to matte glazes which were cheaper to create.
It has been estimated that there were approximately two hundred pieces of Tiger Eye Glaze in the initial run from 1884, and they appear to be of the highest quality. They were all produced in red clay, stamped “Rookwood 1884” with a small “R” under the logo indicating red clay. Most also bear the artists marks, and most of them were decorated by Albert R. Valentien, one of the best artists of the time. It is also known that several hundred experimental pieces were tried in batches in November 1884, nearly all in Red clay as well. While few exist today, nearly all were undecorated by artists and the forms were thrown on wheels and most are unique. They can easily be identified by the word “Tigereye” carved into the bottom in the wet clay, along with a batch number and a letter. They also bear the “Rookwood 1884” stamps.
Once the process for creating Tiger Eye became reliable enough to create pieces on a regular basis in 1885, the base of the pieces were often marked “TI” or “TE” on the base to indicate the Tiger Eye Glaze should be attempted. Throughout the run from 1885 through 1900 many thousands of artist-decorated pieces were destroyed in attempts to give them the signature Tiger Eye effect. Generally only the best artists of the time were allowed to decorate the Tiger Eye pieces, including Kataro Shirayamandani, Albert R. Valentien, Matthew Daly, and Sara Sax, although pieces by Katherine Van Horne, Daniel Cook, and Harriet Wilcox are known to exist. By far the pieces decorated by Albert R. Valentien are the most common.
In 1916 a new glaze was created over white porcelain and was sold as Tiger Eye, but it was quite different in appearance and known to collectors as “Later Tiger Eye”. This glaze line continued until 1967. Some few pieces have been found dated as early as 1910, however the line was not officially introduced to the public until 1920.
It is not difficult to see why collectors prize the Tiger Glaze pieces and are willing to pay large sums to acquire them. They were expensive and difficult to produce, were decorated by the best artists of the time, and exist in extremely limited quantities. In 2014, the Uranus vase came up for auction for the first time in over 50 years, and was purchased there by the Rookwood Company for display at the pottery in Cincinnati, Ohio. It seems only fitting that the greatest achievement of rare Tiger Eye era has come full circle and returned to the hands that created it.
Valentien Uranus Vase
Anna Marie Bookprinter