This story originally aired on October 27, 2018.
Bulgarian-born Momka Peeva knows a thing or two about glass. In fact, she probably knows everything there is to know about all kinds of glass. She even wrote a book about it, which is still the go-to text on glass composition and manufacturing used in Bulgaria today.
Momka grew up in communist Bulgaria during a time when all people, including women, were encouraged to become engineers. So that’s what Momka did: She became a chemical engineer specializing in glass technology. She worked for years at a large glass factory in Slevin, Bulgaria, and later started teaching at a technical high school that operated in the factory. She eventually became the director of the school, and wrote “Technology of Glass” (Technica, Sofia, 1993). For almost 40 years Momka learned everything there was to know about glass. And then the Soviet Union dissolved.
“At this time [my son] Igor moved to United States, has a daughter. And I decide to move here to be a grandma to my granddaughter. And I learned that Seattle is a big glass area. So many galleries, shows, everything. And of course I wanted to continue working with glass,” Momka said.
She moved to Seattle, and started applying to work with local glassmakers. Eventually she was hired by the Portland company Glass Alchemy, where she was tasked with creating brightly colored borosilicate glass for glass artists.
A bit of background: You might be picturing glass blowers working with molten glass, using pliers to pull it and shape it like taffy. That’s called soda-lime, or “soft glass,” and it is most often used for decorative glass sculptures. That’s not the kind of glass Momka was asked to formulate.
Momka was asked to create borosilicate glass, or “hard glass.” It’s a much more difficult material to work with because it is high-temperature resistant, and therefore requires a lot of energy to create. Borosilicate glass is more durable, and chances are you have some in your kitchen -- Pyrex, for instance, uses borosilicate glass to make their cookware.
At the time there were few color options for people wanting to work with borosilicate glass. “[There are] only blue, green, dark colors. Everybody want bright, bright, bright colors because they are not in the market at this time,” says Momka. Until recently glass artists used borosilicate glass for things like marbles and beads; recently there has been a resurgence thanks to the marijuana industry.
Developing new colors of glass requires a strong knowledge of chemical reactions. It’s really expensive to test borosilicate glass because it requires so much energy to create, so Momka only had a few shots at getting it right. Fortunately, it only took three tests to get a bright orange “crayon color.” Within a few months of creating “crayon colors,” Momka’s name became known among glass artists as one of the best.
Since then, Momka and her sons (who helped her start her business Momka’s Glass) field questions almost every day from other companies and formulators wanting to know her secret formula for richly colored borosilicate glass. Momka is deeply protective of he formulas: She doesn’t even have them patented because that would make them public knowledge and accessible to would-be imitators. “Formula is our future,” Momka says.
Today, Momka and her sons continue to develop new colors. To honor Momka, their mission is to support other women in the glass industry.