Caleb Siemon peered into the gaping glow of the furnace and, with a few careful turns of his blowpipe, deftly gathered a fist-sized blob of molten glass, just as he has thousands of times. His hands, as leathered and cracked as a sunbaked saddle from 10 years of professional glass-blowing, work the pipe back and forth over a smooth steel surface, massaging the 2,000-degree glass into one of his coveted pieces.
"We make vessels every day, and I oftentimes wonder where they are all going," he said in a moment of reflection at his Santa Ana studio. "Hopefully, they have all found happy homes."
Happy homes all over the world, as one recent order confirmed. It started with an unusual phone call from the Office of the Chief of Protocol at the U.S. State Department. A representative had seen Siemon's work on display at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., and was looking for distinctive gifts for foreign dignitaries.
Siemon sent some images and went back to his furnace. The State Department soon got back in touch to say "Michelle Obama" was quite pleased with the work.
"I thought, 'Wait a minute, you're not talking about Michelle Obama?' " he said. "I was almost speechless. The fact that the first lady was looking at images of my vessels -- it was really a neat moment for me."
The Obamas gave Siemon's glass to heads of state during the couple's first trip to Europe last spring.
"I don't know who they were given to," he said. "Those are the kind of specifics that I didn't push and they didn't reveal, and I was just honored."
A couple of months later, the State Department called again with another request. It wanted a batch of handblown honey pots.
"The first lady has been keeping bees, apparently, in the White House garden," Siemon said. "It was getting close to harvest time, and they were looking for some unique containers."
Glass pulled from the furnace looks and moves much like honey. Even the color, still glowing from the heat, is similar, Siemon said. He designed a simple, elegant vessel that showcased both the material and its contents. "We were inspired by the way the honey flows and the way the glass flows," he said.
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