The Iowan

The Kontes Brothers

South Jersey Paperweight Artists

By Richard V. Simpson

Your paperweights are great, no doubt, the greatest modern pieces I have seen during the many years I have collected and I would very much like to have one or more in my collection. — Paul Jokelson, paperweight historian, 1989.

Artistic veracity, innovation and creativity are the hallmark of two traditional South Jersey glass men, James and Nontas Kontes.

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James, born in 1919 and Nontas in 1921 are at home in Vineland, New Jersey. While in high school, the brothers took summer jobs as apprentices at Bell Glass learning the rudimentary skills involved in making scientific glass.

By 1942, the brothers had become journeymen glassblowers. In that same year, James and Nontas left Bell Glass and with brother William founded Kontes Glass Company, in Vineland, New Jersey, where William acted in an administrative capacity. The principal production of this enterprise was scientific laboratory glass and precision research instruments. After WW II, the Kontes Glass Company was in full operation filling orders of their specialized scientific glass for a variety of customers. At peek production, Kontes Glass employed 250 in a 100,000 square foot plant. Their customers included NASA, several large international pharmaceutical companies, petroleum and chemical companies, and U.S. government research laboratories.

In 1982, after almost 40 successful years in the manufacture of scientific glass, they sold the Kontes Glass operation to Owens Illinois. Unable to divorce themselves entirely from the glass industry, James and Nontas retained a partnership in H.S. Martin, Inc., scientific glass company, a former division of Kontes Glass.

The brothers are very knowledgeable about glass as a creative medium. They are well aware of the tradition of the early utilitarian, decorative, and art glass produced at the several famous New Jersey glass houses. As their interest and knowledge of glass as an artistic medium grew, they began to collect mid-19th century American and French paperweights, old Jersey weights, and weights by scores of contemporary paperweight artists.

Through talks with their many paperweight artist friends, such as Charles Kaziun, Jim and Nontas could see a new technical and artistic challenge to which they could apply their skills. The brothers met Kaziun during one of his yearly visits to South Jersey. They were greatly inspired by Kaziun’s paperweights and perfume bottles. These casual meetings bloomed into a lasting friendship based upon mutual admiration.

The Kontes then turned their attention to creating art objects in the paperweight genre.

Primarily self taught, there were only few rare occasions that they turned to their network of paperweight artist friends for guidance around a rather sticky problem; Joe Barker was one of those friends. One problem that annoys all novice paperweight artists is discovering the compatibility (co-efficient of expansion) of colored glass to crystal. Early on, during their informal study, Jim and Nontas acted as servitors to their gaffer friend Skip Woods. “Skip was generous in sharing knowledge. Sworn to secrecy, he even showed us the method he used to make a crimp weight. We have never divulged Skip’s secret.”

Eventually, so fascinated by the process, they dedicated a section of their H.S. Martin factory as a studio — this was 1975. “There is a certain fascination in controlling the molten glass and the magic that happens when it transforms into a lasting work of art.” 

Immediately after their studio was completed, they began experimenting in the production of glass enclosed within glass, the art of the paperweight. “When we first started experimenting and learning how to encase lampwork [now called flamework] designs, we used bits and pieces of colored glass from Conlan of New York. Joe Barker even contributed some colored French glass for our use.”

The brothers first needed to master the glass melt taken from a tank and use of the glory hole to reheat the gather while working it on the pontil rod. Their long experience in the realm of scientific glass manufacture aided them to finding solutions to problems that arose in using the tank. 

During their first year as studio artists, they produced a very small number of paperweights. To these talented brothers, this production was a hobby; a hobby that they enjoyed only after the day’s work in the factory was completed and the paying customers’ orders filled.

The brothers’ first paperweights appeared in 1976, they were flat rectangular and heart-shaped plaques with encased floral bouquets. As their confidence, dexterity, and mastery of lampwork grew, they decided to revive a style of paperweight not attempted since the last quarter of the 19th-century; a type thought originated by the Mt. Washington Glass Works — the plaque weight. Therefore, it was in 1976, that Jim and Nontas began experimenting with assembling lampwork floral motifs in the flat, so-called plaque style. Eventually, their plaque-type paperweights took on the shape of a heart, an oval, and as a challenge to the 19th-century original — the faceted rectangular rose plaque. With the successful production of plaque-type paperweights, the brothers have the rare distinction of being the first Americans to produce such weights.

Until evidence proves otherwise, Jim and Nontas Kontes are the first Americans to achieve successful plaque-type paperweights. 

Almost from the beginning of their paperweight production, both have used their initials as signature in canes in their designs, a feature appreciated and applauded by collectors. All Kontes paperweights are identified with their maker’s initial cane. The earliest signature cane was a white star. Today, elder brother, Jim, uses a black conjoined JK monogram on white ground with a yellow-on-red star cane encased in pink; Nontas uses the yellow conjoined NK initials encased in clear crystal. Since 1996, both initial canes appear on all collaborative work.

Retired from the commercial glass business since 1982, paperweight making is still considered a hobby; because of this, production is very limited — sometimes less than 10 paperweights are made per year, per man. These days the brothers’ primary concern is paying attention to the serious business of game bird hunting and deep-sea fishing. 

From the beginning, the brothers’ versatile designs are based in the traditional motifs favored in Victorian times: the variety of the Kontes brothers’ stylized fruit and vegetable paperweights are beyond excellence, their nonthreatening serpents and innocent-appearing lizards and salamanders are a joy to hold and study. 

Although generally working as independent studio artists, it is not unusual to find them working as a team; collaborating on complex paperweights such as piedouche, basket weights and ambitious composites. From time to time, Gordon Smith joins them in creating a special collaborative paperweight.

Because of the creativity and scarcity of Kontes’ paperweights, it is unusual for a weight to change hands for less than $3,000.

Happy is the fortunate collector who can boast of owning a beautiful scarce Kontes paperweight. 

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