Barely a metre away from a 1,000 degree-celsius burning furnace, Hj Najri Hj Saban stands unfazed. His hands — ungloved — methodically turn a hollow metal rod attached to an initially unassuming blob of molten glass. The object is swirled and shaped with a calculation that only the artisan knows.
Keeping the glass malleable is key — too hot and it will liquefy off the end, too cool and it will harden and possibly fracture. The inexperienced can only assume the margin of error in that hissing, glowing orange cauldron, the insides of which burn as hot as lava.
“[The furnace] can go up to 1,300 degrees celsius, can you cope with the heat?” the local glass blower asks.
Many have tried, only to admit defeat. This is one of the reasons why Brunei’s sole glass-making company, Mahkota Crystal, cannot ramp up its production capacity, according to marketing manager Joanna Dato Hj Danial.
“We only have three glass-blowers. They are all Bruneians and they’ve been with Mahkota Crystal from the beginning. They essentially handle and produce all our pieces,” Joanna says.
Over the 18 years the company has been around, it has seen people come and go, but the three master craftsmen — Hj Najri, Razali Emran and Noor Azlin Hj Garip — remain.
They work with their apprentices, moving and anticipating the other’s next move in the silent symphony that is the glass-making process. It is testament to the history the trio share, and hopefully to the others they want to pass on the craft to.
Mahkota Crystal is open to receiving applications from interested parties, Joanna says, acknowledging the need to have a succession plan as it takes “years and years” to become a skilled blower.
“Different hands make different things,” the marketing manager says in jest. But on a serious note, she stresses that to work in such conditions, a willingness to learn and be trained is crucial prerequisite.
Eighteen years ago, it was through a competition that Hj Najri and the others first delved into the painstaking art form. The contest, which sought aspiring local artists, would later lead to the beginning of Mahkota Crystal.
Since then demand has been steady, with brand awareness slowly increasing through social media marketing and strategic partnerships with local retailers. The recent uptick in tourist arrivals into Brunei has also boosted sales.
Although inundated with orders and having to put in the laborious hours, between the three glass-blowers and their small team of helpers, they are able to produce an average of 30 pieces a day.
Most of the orders Mahkota Crystal receives come from corporate clients, usually in large amounts. More recently, it has been able to win hearts through local wildlife-inspired designs such as sea turtles and hornbills. These are a big hit among tourists, expatriates and younger clients, says Joanna.
“There’s definitely a Bruneian flare to our designs… From the traditional ‘celapa’ to our hot-selling pitcher plant design and even the cute animals to represent Brunei,” she says.
But churning out and coming up with these designs is no easy feat.
As the craftsman blows into the other end of the rod, the red molten glass slowly takes shape. With skilled precision, he guides and pulls the now hollowed glass, manipulating it into the desired design. There is more to glass-making than just being able to take the heat.
“I had to learn about what is unique to Brunei, not just copy from other international professional makers,” Hj Najri tells The Scoop. There is a need to constantly come up with new designs and make their artistic vision come to life through glass blowing.
“We haven’t perfected the art yet. Even though we’ve been here for 18 years, everyday is still a learning process.”
For the three blowers, it took them seven months of intensive industry training in Langkawi to be able to grasp the basic glass-blowing techniques. It takes a lot of time, Hj Najri reiterates, but he assures that it is a satisfying craft.
“We don’t expect anyone in Brunei to come in ready with the skills. But, if you’re willing to learn, we want to share and teach and grow Mahkota Crystal,” he says.
Just like the glass that they mould, the future of Mahkota Crystal lies in the skilled hands of young, aspiring local creatives who can be committed to the art.