The Colorful World of Momka Peeva

Immigrant, Entrepreneur, Grandmother: The Colorful World of Momka Peeva

Bulgarian glass chemist grows a family business in the Pacific Northwest

Originally published April 20, 2015. By Rob Zverina.

Borosilicate glass–perhaps best known by one of its many trade names, Pyrex–can withstand temperature extremes from subfreezing to 500 F without cracking, which makes it ubiquitous in kitchens and labs around the world. Its clarity, hardness, and color stability make it attractive to artists who use a high-heat technique known as lampworking to fashion it into beads, goblets, pipes, figurines, and other functional and decorative items. Originally developed in 1893, the quest for new and ever more vibrant colors continues to this day. Momka Peeva wrote the book on borosilicate glass. Literally. Her book ‘Technology of Glass’ (Technica, Sofia, 1993) is still the standard text in Bulgaria. Momka was the director of a technical high school in Sliven and an academic contributor at the Bulgarian Institute of Glass and Ceramics until emigrating to the USA in 1994. She headed straight to the glass mecca that is the Pacific Northwest and started Momka’s Glass in 2004. After decades of toiling in collectivist anonymity behind the Iron Curtain she finally had the opportunity to design, patent, and market her signature colors under her own name. This small family business (her sons Geo and Igor do most of the heavy lifting while Momka does the R&D) produces a dazzling array of some 90 products and ships tons of hand-crafted borosilicate rod annually. Some people chase rainbows; Momka Peeva formulated her own.

I visited her home and factory in Arlington, Washington. As hammers, saws, and nailguns worked in the distance (production facility expansion), she treated me to that famous Bulgarian hospitality. Between bites of homemade sausage and sips of rakija (fruit brandy) we talked about her life, business, politics, and of course glass.

How did you become interested in glass?

When I finished university that was my specialty in Technology of Glass and Ceramics. I started to work in a glass factory in Sliven, Bulgaria. I worked in the lab and I was responsible for analysis of all raw materials which went into the furnaces to make the glass – sand, lime, silica, natrium carbonate, potassium carbonate, potassium nitrate, zinc oxide, borax… The more I worked, the more interesting it became. I had to issue the certificates for all the materials which went into the batches and then the factory made glass for a big part of the Bulgarian domestic market. We made anything from crystal for glassware to be used in special occasions such as weddings, to glass for the chemical labs and for the medical and pharmaceutical industry, tubing for fluorescent lights, and technical glass which was used in chandeliers.

Was it unusual for a woman to be a chemist in Bulgaria at that time? Were there any special challenges?

No, not really. Everybody was encouraged to become an engineer at the time. There was a big desire to become an industrial nation. We were encouraged to go to college. To become a chemical engineer one had to pass a very difficult acceptance exam and to be admitted to college. There were lots of candidates at the time because finding a job was pretty much guaranteed after college.

My own mother climbed quite high in a technical career in Prague in the 1960s. From that I got the impression that for all its other failings, the Soviet regime was less sexist than the USA was–and maybe still is. Was that true in Bulgaria?

Women were encouraged to go to school and to get technical jobs. We were treated equal to men when we were in college, and when we got jobs our salaries were the same. But to advance you had to still be a member of the Communist Party. So, after 12 years in the lab I was asked to become a teacher in the technical high school which was focused on preparing teens as technicians for the glass plants in Sliven. I was a teacher for 3 years and then I was the director of the high school till I retired. In the school I organized and provided a large workshop which gave the kids the skills to engrave and color glass. I also worked on various academic projects. In the last few years, in the late eighties we even managed to have a computer lab.

What was it like in Bulgaria (either career-wise or more broadly)?

In the ‘80s, it was very difficult to make progress on all initiatives which I wanted to drive because of all of the bureaucracy and process – the ministry of Education, the party committees, the various approvals and it was all about navigating the system and networking. So one day I had an idea to contact a school and factory in Russia (or the Soviet Union then) and then Poland and in Czechoslovakia to organize school exchanges. This turned out to be a very popular idea and it got a lot of support because it was the type of thing that the system supported and encouraged. In 1982 I was sent to St. Petersburg for specialty training and graduate level study in ergonomics and there I made more contacts with teachers working in other schools in Lithuania and the Ukraine. Eventually the program included students from Georgia and Armenia. In 1985 the Russian newspaper Pravda wrote an article about it. I focused on that and I think I was able to help a lot of young people have a good experience, even regardless of the limitations of the system.

What made you want to come to the USA? Was it mainly to start your own business?

I came to the US mainly because my son, Igor, moved there and had a baby girl. I came over because I wanted to be around them and be a grandma. When I moved to Seattle I realized it was very much a center of glass art; there were lots of galleries and shops and while visiting them I was lucky to meet Mrs. Anne Gould Hauberg, a founder of the Pilchuck Glass School. That was 1994. She offered me a job at the school but I turned her down because my English was so bad at the time. In 1999 I started working for another company in Portland. I became one of the founders of Glass Alchemy and developed a portfolio of borosilicate glass colors for them. My command of the chemical formulas was still better than my English so I focused on that and was able to transfer my knowledge from soft glass to hard glass coloring and within 9 months I made the formulas for 37 colors which are still in their production line. I consider this one of my best achievements because I believe I am the first person to develop ‘crayon colors’ and ‘cadmium colors’ and put them to production in the US. The brightness of the reds, orange and yellow were a revolutionary development in the boroglass community at the time.

What challenges did you face as an immigrant wanting to start a business?

Starting a business in the US is relatively easy from the standpoint of logistics. That same process is almost impossible in other places in the world. It was difficult to get off the ground with very little money and without having much of a network. Once I became a citizen in 2001 I filed for my older son Geo to come over and with his help I was able to start my own business. Geo is a very capable and very talented engineer and he was willing to start working for me and be a partner without the guarantee that we will succeed. The hardest part was getting him here and getting him a green card. Without that I would have never been able to open my business and sustain myself and the rest of my family to this day. We have now been in business for over 10 years.

What surprised you most about life in the USA/PNW compared to your expectations?

The fact that you have a choice. This was the best. I suppose I can say ‘freedom.’ Before I started working in the glass industry I did all kinds of jobs to make ends meet – I was a nanny, I cooked and worked as a housekeeper, I considered being a high school tutor for a short time and so on. But the fact that I had a choice and I could take the risk was liberating.

Is there anything you miss about Bulgaria?

Of course. I miss the Bulgarian spirit. I miss my friends. I miss the culture, the music, the way the countryside smells and how tomatoes taste. These are things that do not travel well. But I have them in my memory and I go back to visit often.

What makes Momka’s glass special?

The quality and the unique colors. We make it by hand. Every inch of glass is inspected. We have a very rich portfolio and a number of our colors are truly unique and only available from us and nowhere else in the world.

Who uses Momka’s glass?

We have distributors in the US, Switzerland, Germany, UK and Canada. Our glass is used by artists who make anything from beads to elaborate sculptures. We work with them to understand their needs and develop more colors and combinations.

What are your plans for Momka’s Glass?

I am almost 77 years old but I have no plans to retire yet. I have some plans to make several new colors this year. We will make more glass and more new colors. I am planning to speak at the University in Bulgaria this summer. I love my job, my family, and the opportunities ahead.