When Razali Hj Emran (pictured main) was 19 and in his final year at Berakas secondary school (SMB), he was told by his art teacher that he was handpicked to enter an art competition, one that was looking select and train “glassblowers”.
He showed up to the hall of a vocational school at 8am, where he was joined by 150 others; all who were equally clueless about glassblowing, but who were undoubtedly artistic – they had been cherry-picked from schools across the country.
After all had gathered, representatives from government-owned company Semaun Holdings told the students that this was a try out for Brunei’s first artisanal glass factory. The main test was to come up with a sketch of any item, with a traditional design.
Razali drew a celapa, a bronzed metal cylindrical container traditionally used to store betel nut that was served during special occasions, typically festive ceremonies or to honoured guests. After some thought, he quickly scribbled out a design, handed it in and went home.
“Two weeks later I was contacted,” said Razali, now 36. “I didn’t believe it. Out of the 150, five had been selected. And I was one of them.”
The five, Mahkota’s second batch of Bruneian apprentices, were sent to Langkawi Crystal in Malaysia to be trained in the skill of handcrafted glassmaking, primarily using the glassblowing method, a rich cultured tradition dating as far back as the first century BC – some argue by Syrians – and later popularized during the expansion Roman Empire.
Today, glassblowing has been largely reduced to an artisanal craft in glassmaking circles; the industrial demands for glass for bottles and containers are done along conveyor belts into precise moulds, while flat sheets are made by pouring onto molten tin in giant factories.
Glassblowing is unlikely to die out, however, because the simple act of blowing into hollow metal pipe gifts the artisan the ability to shape glass at will. He’s limited only by his imagination, and skill.
“Mahkota began in 2000 as Brunei’s pioneer for handcrafted art glass,” says their interim general manager cum sales and marketing manager Joanna Dato Hj Danial. “Whatever a customer might want in the medium of glass – we will do our best to provide that.”
Mahkota began as a joint venture with a Malaysian company, but in 2013, came fully under the government-owned Darussalam Assets. Management, as well as staff, have shifted around over the years, but a backend trio has held the line and kept production going; Razali, along with Hj Najri Hj Saban and Noor Azlin Hj Garip.
“They’ve been here since the beginning,” says Joanna, who joined Mahkota two years ago. “Hj Najri and Noor Azlin were the first intake. Razali was the second.”
As production gets underway, the trio, who are assisted by several others, share an unspoken understanding as they blow and turn molten glass into a batch of sumboi-sumboi; complete with rippling intricacies and an infusion of colours.
It begins at the furnace, at temperatures well over 1,000 degrees Celcius, a thick, red-hot liquid – molten glass, that’s made from – as your science textbook rightly pointed out – a mixture of sand, lime and soda. A thin metal blowpipe, some five feet long, is dipped inside, turned and out becomes a glowing amber-coloured blob.
Noor Azlin is careful, because the blob is still liquid, and can easily drip. He sits down quickly and firmly spins the rod along a steel marver. He then blows gently, for too much air will stretch the structure too thin, making it prone to shattering later on. He gets up, inserts the rod into another furnace, called the glory hole, which ensures his glass remains pliable through heat.
He eyes a colourful selection of powdered metal oxides and sulfides after, which he rolls the glass over. Things are beginning to take shape.
Razali assists him with this piece, as they duet to add more glass onto the structure , later smoothing it out on a block, before using tongs to pull and stretch the glass into its pitcher plant shape.
Once done, it’s shifted into an annealing oven, which keeps the temperature at several hundred degrees Celcius before it is very gradually left to cool, hardening the glass. The ‘hot end’ is complete.
The next morning, the grinders polish the glassware, before it’s handed over to quality control for inspection – and if it makes the grade, it enters the showroom, or is packaged for the customer.
One of Joanna’s priorities is to get Mahkota more noticed by the general public – their clientele has typically been larger, corporate organizations looking for special commemorative gifts, prizes or trophies.
And despite selling thousands of exquisite pieces that adorn the shelves of homes and offices over the past 17 years, Noor Azlin, Razali and Hj Najri have rarely, if ever, made a public splash or gained attention for being one of the first – and still active – artisanal glassblowers from Brunei.
“At the start I didn’t know how (to make glass),” said Hj Najri. “But with each day, I learned more. I understood more. When a customer comes in and leaves satisfied, happy with their product, I feel very great to be making a Bruneian product.
“Aku betahan, because of my desire. My desire to make something new.”
Mahkota Crystal is open from Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm, and on Saturday from 8am to 12pm (closes for lunch between 12pm to 1.30pm, and 12pm to 2pm on Fridays). Their showroom is located at Lot 28, Tapak Perindustrian Lambak Kanan.