Kokomo Opalescent Glass Builds Unbreakable Reputation
When a 20-foot-high flame shot from a cornfield to light up the sky near Kokomo one October night in 1886, it marked the beginning of the Indiana gas boom – and much more. That flame also sparked a 125-year legacy of light known today as the Kokomo Opalescent Glass company.
The company’s founder, Charles Edward Henry, was one of many entrepreneurs drawn to central Indiana by the discovery of natural gas. The fuel was so abundant that growing gas companies offered Henry free gas as an enticement to open the Opalescent Glass Works in Kokomo two years later.
These days, the company’s gas bill is substantially higher – up to $65,000 a month – and the name has changed to Kokomo Opalescent Glass. But the fundamentals remain the same.
Then as now, the company specializes in colored sheet glass. One of the company’s first shipments went to none other than Louis Comfort Tiffany. Skilled artisans still create that glass in the same location, in buildings that date back to the company’s 1888 opening. Descendants of the three local businessmen who purchased the business in 1891 are among the 35 people who work there today.
“We are America’s oldest art glass manufacturer, and one of only six in the United States,” says Cindy Locke, manager of the company’s gift shop, The Op Shop.
Kokomo Opalescent Glass, the only art glass factory that manufactures glass sheet by hand, uses time-honored techniques and recipes developed by its founders. Kokomo glass offers unparalleled color, clarity, texture and workability – qualities that made Tiffany a loyal customer and continue to draw artisans from around the world.
While stained glass is painted, sheet glass is created. The color goes all the way through the glass for a richer, more lasting effect. And those colors are nothing if not abundant. In fact, Kokomo Opalescent Glass offers an array of 22,000 colors, as well as seven densities (transparencies) and 19 textures – from rippled to mottled to marbleized.
“Each sheet is its own unique piece of art,” says Locke, who likes to introduce visitors to her favorite color (No. 111) while leading the company’s award-winning tour. Featuring a four-color mix of red, lime green, cobalt blue and white, No. 111 “is bright and bold … it has a lot of life to it.” Other colors offer a softer, watercolor-like effect.
Even after 33 years at the company, Locke’s job still offers daily delights, as she fields unusual and high-profile requests from all around the world.
“This is such an incredible place – you never know who you’ll end up talking to when you pick up the phone,” she says.
“When Disney calls to place an order, I’m as excited as a 12-year-old, as if Mickey Mouse is going to be on the other end of the line.”
Hosting an Arabian prince who flew to Kokomo on a private jet in 1982 was nothing if not a surreal experience. And a rush job the company completed for Pope Benedict XVI still gives Locke goose bumps.
Hollywood comes calling on a regular basis, too. You can find Kokomo glass in the elf tower at the North Pole in The Santa Clause movie starring Tim Allen. And the lighting sconces that illuminate the mayhem as dinosaurs chase Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum – “They’re all Kokomo glass,” Locke says.
Kokomo Opalescent Glass is a favorite among artists doing restoration work. Locke recently filled an order that will help refurbish 130 stained glass windows used in the abandoned Ohio prison featured in The Shawshank Redemption, which is now open to the public for tours.
From a prison church to the Vatican, Locke estimates that 75 percent of the world’s churches contain Kokomo glass.
“It’s comforting … it soothes the soul,” Locke says. “Every time I go to a church, I think ‘that’s glass blown at Kokomo glowing on me.’ ”
In 1998, the Kokomo Opalescent Glass company added a hot glass studio to create hand-blown and hand-cast art glass objects using its own celebrated glass.
You can take home some of that classic Kokomo beauty from The Op Shop, which offers tours and products, such as sun catchers, paperweights, memorial urns and awards.
“Our gift shop offers 100 percent American-made products that are made right here on the premises,” Locke says.
From Tiffany lamps to Frank Lloyd Wright homes, Navy Pier to the Vatican, Kokomo glass can be found in some of the world’s most beautiful places and pieces of art. Perhaps that’s because the glassmakers at this historic company make much more than glass – they summon sunlight, invite inspiration and beckon beauty.
And as the lasting legacy of Kokomo Opalescent Glass proves, beauty never goes out of style.