While most can and will consider German reunification a “success story”, the merger of the two German states also meant the loss of identity, purpose, and direction for many. There are plenty of articles, books and documentaries out there which deal with the subject of East German identity far better than I ever could – but I inadvertently came across some GDR Lab Beakers which sent me down an East German rabbit hole. I emerged a few days later with a box full of Superfest Gläser – a nearly unbreakable and forgotten glass from East Germany.
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Ostalige and Capitalism
It all started when I was browsing through some film developing chemicals at one of my preferred photo shops (Fotoimpex). They usually have a small table near the back wall with discounted products and the odd junk that they are trying to sell off. Now this table greeted me with the smiling face of Erich Honecker. Upon closer inspection I realized they were selling off some east German lab beakers for €10, happily advertising them with “Made in GDR” and a picture of Honecker.
While I’m sure that the beakers themselves were probably of good quality, they were nowhere near worth €10 a pop. The combination of Made in GDR and the Honecker photo made it quite clear to me that they were purely meant for gullible tourists looking for a bit of ostalgie.
Everybody’s got their hustle – so fair game if they manage to sell them off. After I left the shop my mind wandered and I began thinking about those beakers. What if they WERE special? Were they Pyrex? Did they even have Pyrex in the GDR? I’m no glass or lab expert, how would I know if they weren’t some amazing relic from the past? I began reading up a bit into the beakers, and it turns out I was right: at €10 a piece they were massively overpriced.
A quick look at eBay will tell you that you can find an entire set of these glasses for the same price. What I also found out was that these beakers were made of Borosilicate glass (invented by German glassmaker Otto Schott in the late 19th century in Jena) and are known to the English speaking world as Pyrex. The heat resistant glass was marketed from the 1920s onward as JENAer GLAS, and was a household name as it was produced both for industrial and home uses.
Superfest – Innovation through necessity
Having fallen down the rabbit hole of Jenaer Glass, I soon stumbled upon German term which I had not heard of before: Superfest.
What sounds like a German music festival, is actually the name of a genius east German glass invention, a glass which could last up to 15 times longer than normal glass. The origins of Superfest, literally SuperHard – were twofold. East Germany was always a frugal country with a mindset of not wasting the limited resources it had, and it was driven by technological advances.
While the German Democratic Republic might suffer from the stigma today that it was technologically backward (which was true for certain fields), it was a creative and adaptive country which produced world class products and technology that’s still in use today (many of today’s planetariums are still equipped by technology invented in the GDR).
East German pubs and restaurants suffered from a problem, which every pub and restaurant around the world had to deal with – their drinking glasses kept on breaking. This wasn’t a unique east German or socialist problem (in fact, east Germany inherited a long tradition of superb glass making skills after the war) – it was just a common occurrence of wear and tear.
With the advancement in glass making technology, East Germany developed a doctrine (which actually applied to all industry fields) in which it sought to use its own resources rather than import them from the outside, secure and satiate the home market, improve the glass properties to prolong product life, save energy, materials and labor through the longer life of glass products, increase international reputation by developing new production processes, and make some hard currency through the sales of licenses and property rights. Who knew that glass making could sound so important to a national economy.
Ceverit – an East German success
The Zentralinstitut für anorganische Chemie (Central Institute for Inorganic Chemistry) in Adlershof, Berlin began its research into hardening glass, specifically through the Ion-exchange process in the late 1960s. Patents for hardening glass through this ion exchange process were granted to the VEB Kombinat Technisches Glas in Ilmenau. This research was then expanded on in 1973 in Bad Muskau by Dr. S.Schelinski, Dr. D. Patzig, K. Heinrich and B. Grueger. They set up small and the large scale testing facilities, which coincided with the delivery of a glass blowing / forming machine from Japan in 1975.
Quick detour: Did you know that Bad Muskau is home to the Fürst-Pückler-Park Bad Muskau, a UNESCO World Heritage site? The park was created by (or better for) Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau also more commonly known as Fürst Pückler. While many english speakers might be familiar with “Neopolitan Ice Cream” – it was actually invented by the Royal Prussian court cook Louis Ferdinand Jungius in 1839, and named after Fürst Pückler. To this day, the ice cream is known as Fürst Pückler Eis in Germany.
By 1977, Dr. Patzig and his colleagues achieved their breakthrough. They developed and patented a chemical process that made thin-walled glasses (at least 5 times) less prone to breaking than conventional ones. The team built on the research from the Institute in Adlershof, and created a new commercially viable process to produce what was dubbed CV Glass (Chemically Hardened Glass).
During the first stage, the glass would be produced like every other normal glass – with machines cooling the glass and sanding off the edges etc. After this process, the glasses would be loaded off into a specialized glass holding machine (a one-off custom construction) which would then shuffle the glasses off to be heated back up to a temperature of 420C.
The heated glasses would then be sprayed with a specialized potassium chloride solution that fused with the glass surface. This Potassium chloride solution filled in the micro ruptures within the glass that naturally occur during glass production, making the glass less prone to breaking. And that’s the whole process of “Ion Exchanging”. A unique feature of this hardened glass was that it bounced when you dropped it, essentially giving you a second chance to catch the glass.
This newly created glass was then called “Ceverit”. Ce stood for Chemisch (Chemically), “ver” for verfestigt (hardened) and the “it” stood for the silica component.
Superfest – a design icon
At the same time, the Generalkollektiv under Paul Bittner, Fritz Keuchel and Tilo Poitz set out to design a universally versatile glass. It needed to be as light as possible, take up as little space as possible and be as durable as could be.
By 1978, the Generalkollektiv came up with a glass that essentially ushered in a new standard of “catering” glass in the GDR. They had come up with a newly patented way to reduce the weight and increase the durability of the glass by introducing a special salt in the production process. The design and practicality of the glasses, especially their stackability (earning them the nickname stapelglas) was even recognized by the GDR, earning itself the “Good Design” award in 1980.
So, with the design and the chemical process in place, the Ministry for Glass and Ceramic Industries gave the order to expand the glass production plant in Schewpnitz with a new production hall. A total of one million marks was made available, and Ceverit glass production began in April 1980.
An estimated 110 million glasses were produced in all shapes and sizes in the following 10 years, ranging from shot glasses to half liter beer glasses. Interestingly enough – the name Ceverit was phased out before production began and replaced with “Superfest (Super Hard), as someone noticed that “Ceverit” was a conjugated form of the Latin word “cevere”, which translates to “wiggling your butt while having sex”. Opportunity missed in my opinion.
Capitalism has no need for durability
Despite their commercial success in East Germany, the production plant in Schewpnitz was shut down on the 1st of July, 1990. After German reunification, the plant was sold off and scrapped piece by piece – as no manufacturer had any interest in the technology, or in a product which would actually “slow down” sales. And that’s (just one of many small) tragedies of German reunification. Superfest was an invention that maybe could have only been made under a “socialist” system – it was a product that solved a problem, but wasn’t dependent on inflated sales figure due planned obsolescence.
While commercial manufactures might not be interested in producing a glass that’s more durable, pub owners and users of Superfest glasses swear on the product. Thankfully they were produced in such quantities that they can still be found for reasonable prices online and in flea markets. Grab them while you can – they won’t be available forever.
While the Superfest glass is by far more durable than normal glass, when they shatter – the burst into a million fine pieces and are a total nightmare to clean up. I’m not sure if it’s because of their potassium chloride coating or because they are made to be super thin, my advice is to not drop them.