VALPARAISO — Debra Silvert has a gift she kept under wraps for 20 years.
With good reason, the 200-year-old flute made of crystal glass given to her by her husband left Silvert, an experienced flutist, “intimidated.”
Silvert, of Valparaiso, discussed and displayed the rare instrument Thursday at “An 1816 Flute – Crystal Clear” at the Porter County Museum.
The Silverts first learned of crystal flutes made in the 1800s by Frenchman Claude Laurent when they visited a collection of such flutes in the Library of Congress in 1987.
Laurent, a watchmaker, received a patent on his flute in 1806. Only a few more than 100 Laurent flutes have survived, most of them made of clear glass, but some of “uranium green” and “cobalt blue” glass. Some flutes are truly heavy leaded glass, or crystal, while others are “potash glass” that contains potassium.
Many features of the Laurent flutes were “completely innovative” at the time, Silvert said. Keys were made of brass or silver, and endcaps and keys were embellished with quartz, mother-of-pearl, garnet and citrine.
Silvert said the skill with which Laurent created the crystal flutes in his time was “amazing.”
“To duplicate it is considered impossible today,” Silvert said.
The instruments were popular with heads of state, as U.S. President James Madison, Emperor Napoleon I of France, and King Louis Napoleon of Holland, among others, each owned one.
After seeing the crystal flutes at the Library of Congress with her husband, Debra Silvert was smitten.
“Boy, oh boy, that was the beginning of the end for me,” Silvert said.
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Silvert said it took her husband ten years to find a flute to purchase, which became a “surprise” gift to her.
Over the next 20 years, she would occasionally take it out to admire it, but then put it back safely in its protective case. She finally learned to play the rare flute for the 2014 National Flute Convention.
Silvert said Library of Congress officials would like to evaluate her flute’s condition and composition with high-powered microscopes and X-rays, as they do with the glass flutes in their collection.
“They are super interested because I’m playing it,” said Silvert. “They want to see whether playing it has an impact on its preservation.”
As a result, Silvert said she is “mindful” of how her body’s pH levels might be affecting this flute.
“I don’t drink coffee right before I play because of the acidity,” Silvert said.
Likewise, Silvert is also “mindful” when she handles the flute. She never walks around with it in case she were to trip, and she lays it on a faux fur pelt or keeps it in a specially-designed case to protect it when she is not playing it.
“I am ‘fully present’ when I’m handling the flute,” said Silvert. “It’s kind of a Zen thing.”
Silvert and classical guitarist Paul Bowman, who make up the group Duo Sequenza, will feature a musical piece commissioned especially for the glass flute at a concert Nov. 16 at the Memorial Opera House.
“We take new instruments and play old music, so why not take a really old instrument and play new music on it?” Silvert said.