Rooted in Sunny California
Founded in 2013, Empire Glassworks is a team of glassblowers located in southern California. Assembled by Phillip Vuong, Empire puts an emphasis on creating functional and fun glass art. Their pieces often feature pop-culture characters and hand blended in-house colors. Overtime they’ve become a highly revered name in the glass industry by maintaining high quality standards and crafting detailed art.
Assembling a Team
The Empire Glassworks team has an extensive background in soft-glass work. Much of the group’s background consists of intricate work in small spaces such on borosilicate beads, figurines, and jewelry. The diversity of skill ensures Empire has zero restrictions when conceiving new pipe designs and working on the torch.
Empire’s work frequently consists of characters from popular video games and cartoons. This adds a fun aesthetic to their functional water pipes, guaranteeing Empire fans always enjoy a unique smoke. They also take design suggestions from customers - maybe your favorite character will be next?
Much of Empire’s work involves the use of dichroic (dichro) glass. The creation of dichro glass involves applying ultra-thin layers of different metals to the surface of the glass and kiln heating it at extreme temperatures. Dichro enables certain wavelengths to pass through the glass while others are reflected. This means that the color will change depending on the intensity and angle of the light. Due to the work required and temperamental nature of dichroic glass, no two dichro pieces will ever be the same.
Smoke Cartel was lucky to speak with Phillip Vuong, CEO of Empire Glassworks.Q: How did Empire Glassworks begin and how did you put together such a diverse team of blowers? What is your personal background?
Empire Glassworks emerged out of a company called Unicorne Beads. Unicorne Beads created figurines and beads dating back to 1967. My parents purchased the company in the 80s, leading me to do homework in the midst of the studio while my mom was working. I naturally wanted to be on the flame and learned a lot about color work. Now, Empire Glassworks consists of 40 expert glassblowers across the United States with facilities in California and Wisconsin.
Q: What inspired you to frequently work with Dichroic glass? What are the benefits and difficulties of working with dichro?
My parents had been working with Dichroic glass for years - it was part of what lead to the success of Unicorne Beads. With 40 years of jewelry and color blending experience behind me, it was easy to pivot into the pipe industry. As far as the difficulties- glass is very fickle, it’s all made by different companies. When you mix it together and work with it for a while, you start to really realize what works best together. My mother’s knowledge on what colors worked together and their prices enabled me to get an edge in the industry. Working with beads enabled us to realize what colors blended without cracking or bubbling. We’ve had the time to troubleshoot that, I like to think we have colors on lock.
Q: What are the challenges of creating elaborate sculpted glasswork that the common smoker may overlook?
It’s hard as fuck to make glass. Each piece is handmade here at Empire Glassworks, even if it’s just a tiny fish that’s attached to the outside of a pipe - lots of work goes into it. The figurine work is not easy to do because it is highly detailed and takes lots of time. Another elaborate part the common smoker may overlook is the color mixing. There’s lots of trial and error involved in color mixing.
Q: What are the trickiest and most rewarding aspects of being a lamp worker?
Patience. You gotta be patient. You gotta sit there and pay attention to details. It’s meticulous work. As a lathe worker, you throw the tube on the lathe, turn up the fire and spin it. But lampworkers have just a straight torch and their hands.
Q: What advice do you have for those interested in getting started on the torch?
For those who are interested in getting started on the torch, I recommend seeing if your college or university has a glassblowing club. Lots of them do! Get in contact with them - you likely don’t need to be going to the school to join. Once you hone your skills find a gallery or shop that accepts freelance work or repairs and go from there.
Like these questions? Click here for the second half of our interview with Phillip, focusing specifically on Empire's new pipe line and idea generation. Don't forget to check out our Empire Glassworks collection for a phenomenal selection of functional glass art and accessories! The Two Tiered Sub rig is a personal favorite here at Smoke Cartel.