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What Is Mercury Glass?
You see it everywhere now: in magazines, gracing wedding receptions and other elegant events, and in elaborate table settings at celebrity weddings. It's distinctive—almost blotchy—silvery appearance is hard to miss and definitely not that easy to find if you're looking for the real deal. No, it's not your Great Aunt Susie's silverware that somehow went missing when you were dividing up her personal belongings after she went to the great Antique Store In The Sky. It's the beautiful and highly coveted mercury glass that's showing up at vintage wedding receptions everywhere these days and with good reason. Brides are looking to combine a look of elegance and charm by reusing collectibles from the past and pairing them with antique or retro furnishings to radically change our idea of how a formal wedding should look.
So what is this stuff, and why is it so expensive? Authentic antique mercury glass is hard to find and definitely not cheap. It was originally created as a cheaper alternative to sterling. Although no one is sure where it originated, the first patents on mercury glass were taken out in England in the mid-1800s. It quickly gained high favor in households that couldn't afford sterling or in some of the poorer churches who couldn't foot the bill for expensive silver chalices, candelabras and candlesticks. Mercury glass is actually a double-walled glass that has a small hole in it somewhere on the piece. Through this hole, the liquid silvering is injected. Then the hole is plugged with cork, wax, or metal to keep the silvering from escaping. The jury is out on whether real mercury, which is toxic, was ever used in creating mercury glass. Although mercury was used in silvering mirrors, some say it was never used in creating mercury glass but instead silver nitrate mixed with grape sugar was used. Regardless, the silvering in authentic mercury glass does break down and creates the mottling that we see in antique pieces today.
A Gorgeous Table Setting Done With Mercury Glass
Where Can You Find Mercury Glass?
Finding mercury glass can be easy . . .or difficult. It really depends on two things: (1) if you are looking at authentic, vintage mercury glass and (2) how much money you have. True, vintage mercury glass is expensive; so unless you're marrying into some serious money or have it all on your own, you might want to think about renting the pieces. Plus, although information out there tries to persuade us that mercury glass is readily available, it isn't. It's not like milk glass, where practically everyone has at least one rolling around under their kitchen sink or garage or can scrounge it up from relatives. If you want true, vintage mercury glass, you're going to have to go out and look at thrift stores, antique malls, and on e-bay, but be careful about buying online if you are looking for authenticity. On e-bay in particular, you can find some good deals and some unique pieces, but you can't turn the piece in your hands, check for authentic tarnishing and the patina real mercury glass would have, or judge the weight of the piece. Reproduction mercury glass tends to weigh less than the real thing, so keep that in mind as well. If you come upon a piece with decals, stickers, or other markings, nine times out of ten, it's not going to be the real thing. If you do score some genuine mercury glass, do take care to store it properly until the big day, wrapping it in acid-free tissue paper and keeping it from extremes in heat or cold.
If authenticity doesn't matter to you, your last name isn't Rockefeller, and none of your wedding guests work for the Antique Road Show, go for reproduction. It's readily available in discount chains like Ross's, T.J. Maxx, Kohl's and Marshall's, particularly near Christmas when so many people use it in their holiday displays. You will still be collecting it over time and going from store to store, but you can achieve that eclectic look of vintage mercury glass by mixing the different pieces you find to create a pleasing arrangement. Plus, some of the reproduction pieces do look very authentic and the resale value for both vintage and reproduction mercury glass is very good if you decide not to keep the treasures you've collected.
How Do I Decorate With Mercury Glass?
The fun part of decorating with mercury glass is everything doesn't have to be completely match-matchy. You can find it in a stunning assortment of different items, shapes and sizes, everything from large centerpieces to votive holders. If you're lucky, you can even find it in your wedding colors, although colored mercury glass is very rare, it does exist. The main thing you want to do is make sure you're using mercury glass in the same color family. There are so many color variations in mercury glass due to the deterioration process that if you're not careful, you may end up with some not so attractive color combinations. Once you know the look you're after and have bought a piece or two in that color family, wrap it up and take it with you on your foraging expeditions, so you can match it up.
Although you'll find vase and bowls that would look gorgeous with real flowers, you might want to consider putting another vase inside of the mercury glass to protect it or lining it with aluminum foil. Additional water added to your vintage mercury glass vase may cause more discoloration, which you may not want. Pastel flowers such as pale pinks, ivory, and white look sensational in mercury glass bowls & vases, especially if you use those with a vintage look such as roses, peonies, the lowly carnation, and ranunculus.
Can I Duplicate the Look of Mercury Glass?
Let's suppose you are not heir to Great Aunt Susie's silver collection nor her mercury glass, and your wallet is pretty well turned inside out from all the other wedding expenses. If you have your heart set on the look of mercury glass, there are several ways to duplicate the look for a tiny fraction of the cost if you're just a little bit crafty. It will still involve foraging for vase, bowls, and candlesticks at thrift, antique, and dollar stores, as well as a trip to the craft store, but will be worth it in the long run. Look for clear glass in the shapes you want for the look you are trying to create. Once you get all your treasures home, wash them with warm soapy water, rinse, and let dry thoroughly.
There are several different DIY mercury glass techniques, some more complicated than others. One quick and easy way is to get a can of Krylon Mirror Glass spray paint and a spray bottle of water. Cover the outside of your vessel with brown paper or newspaper to protect it from overspray. Yes, the OUTSIDE, because you will be spraying the INSIDE of the piece with the mirror glass paint. Give the inside of the piece a light spray with the water bottle, then spray a very light coat of mirror glass paint inside of it. Let that dry and follow with two or three more light coats until you get the look you want. You can stop there and have just a mottled silver appearance to the piece or you can get some umber colored paint and dab inside the piece with a cotton swab or cotton ball to achieve a more antique look.
This is an inexpensive way to create the look of mercury glass, however, there is another more expensive way and that is by using gold or silver leaf. You will repeat the process with washing your piece, but then will apply the leafing according to product directions, leaving small places here and there where you do not cover the area with leafing. You may also cover the entire area with leafing and then go back and scratch off with your fingernail. You can follow with the same technique of dabbing the inside with umber, black , gold, or silver paint depending on the look you want and the color leafing you chose. Again, protect silver and gold leafing from water, because it will tend to deteriorate if you don't.
Finally, Your Beautiful Mercury Glass Table Décor!
The last thing you have to do is step back and admire your beautiful table arrangements! Either DIY by little ole' you or vintage and authentic, mercury glass is stunning and will wow your guests with your sense of style and creativity.
Create Beautiful Glass Balls That Look Like Mercury Glass
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Questions & Answers
Question: Since it's mercury glass, do you have to have a plastic tray inside to hold live flowers?
Answer: Since the paint on mercury glass is normally inside, it wouldn’t be a good idea to put live flowers inside without some type of other container inside holding the flowers. I have tried just live flowers in water and it took the paint off!
Question: Could I fill mercury glass containers with soy candle wax? I’m making candles!
Answer: No, I don’t think the paint on mercury glass would hold up well to heat.
DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on December 10, 2011:
Thanks, J! Me, too! Thanks for stopping by.
J Burgraff on December 10, 2011:
I love mercury glass and I love your article on it. Thumbs way up!!
DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on November 26, 2011:
You're right, Pcunix, you could be passing up something worth a ton of money!
Tony Lawrence from SE MA on November 26, 2011:
Amazing. If I saw something like that at a flea market or yard sale, I'd think it was junk..
How wrong I would be!
DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on November 26, 2011:
Thanks, KK. If you bought real mercury glass, it would cost a fortune! I always feel better if I can pull off a replica of something by doing it myself and save money at the same time!
Susan Hazelton from Northern New York on November 26, 2011:
Mercury glass is certainly beautiful. I can image it making quite a stunning addition to wedding décor. I also was pleased to see you include a section about crafting it yourself. Very creative.
DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on November 25, 2011:
Thanks, Truckstop, You could always use it for another special occasion, Rc, I fully expect your crafty self to be whipping out some of these in no time! CM, when you find him, ask him if he has a brother!
CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on November 25, 2011:
Well I had never heard of mercury glass before, so thanks for the introduction. It looks absolutely beautiful, so when I find that husband I will definitely have it at my wedding!
Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on November 24, 2011:
Interesting topic! Thanks for the useful information.
Truckstop Sally on November 24, 2011:
Beautiful hub! I'm not planning a wedding, but your ideas are always so dreamy!