Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
There are only a few dedicated artisanal globemakers left in the world—and there’s good reason for that.
To be an artisanal globemaker, you’ve got to be patient and stubborn.
Ask Peter Bellerby, one of the few people left who still makes globes by hand. Nowadays, globes are mostly made by machines, and Bellerby says he knows why. “It’s horrendously difficult. You have to retrain your body to work in a much slower and guarded way,” he says. “They’ve got to want to do it and not be beaten by the process.” It took him more than a year to learn the art.
Bellerby, 50, founded Bellerby & Co. Globemakers—one of the world’s only handcrafted globe making studios—in London in 2008 when he couldn’t find a quality globe for his father’s 80th birthday. They were either too cheaply made or too expensive and fragile. So he decided to make one himself. How hard could it be?
Bellerby gave himself three months and a few thousand pounds to get the job done. “It very quickly got out of control,” he says. The meridian alone, the metal band that encircles the globe, cost more than 15,000 pounds (or $23,000) to perfect. “I realized that if I was going to continue, I had to at least have a stab at making a business out of it because the cost was not justifiable for anyone’s birthday present.”
When asked if he had initially worried about a lack of demand for globes, particularly with the widespread adoption of GPS and digital maps, Bellerby simply says that he “put it out of my mind.”
Fast forward seven years, and Bellerby and his staff produce 200 globes a year in his studio in Stoke Newington, London. Their clients range from students to businessmen to filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, who commissioned four globes for his 2011 movie Hugo.
Each globe can take months to complete because for Bellerby, precision and accuracy are key. He makes most of the components in-house, from the sphere to the actual map. “Essentially, in the 20th century, people forgot how to make globes accurate,” he says. “Because the competition seemed to have disappeared, they allowed themselves to make them in a more factory environment. You would have sections of maps overlapping [each other], which would make you lose entire countries.”
Bellerby licensed a map from a reputable source, but still had to go in and correct the spelling and positions of different cities and capitals. In the next step, the map is then cut into strips, then applied to the sphere one piece at a time so that each lines up perfectly with the panels on the globe. “Ultimately, the art within globemaking is attaching a wet piece of paper to a sphere,” Bellerby says. “You have to get the timing right so that it relaxes the bond between the paper, and so you don’t overdo it so it falls apart.” It’s a process that took Bellerby 18 months to initially perfect.
Globemaking became a well-established craft in Europe during the Renaissance, with the earliest surviving terrestrial globe made in the 1492 by German geographer Martin Behaim. Globes were intricate, and documented what explorers had uncovered. They were also decorative and often exchanged as gifts among powerful figures.
Today, Bellerby sees globes as inspirational rather than everyday-functional. “You’ll never use it to navigate; you use GPS and Google maps because that is completely amazing and fantastic,” he says. “But when you have a globe, it allows you to see the planet we live on and see the countries as they relate to each other—which is really important and far more inspiring.”