History of Crystal and Glass
By Patrick Christensen
We take glass and crystal for granted in this post-industrial world; indeed, it would be impossible not to see or touch glass on any given day. The production of glass dates back to 3500 BC in Mesopotamia, with the creation of beads. It was much later, around 1500 BC, that glass vessels began to appear, and within the last several centuries, certain glass and crystal firms have emerged and perfected the craft of glass and crystal creation.
French companies, as well as Italian, Swedish, Irish, English, and American companies, produce exceptional glass and crystal wares. As a general rule, crystal has up to 35% more lead content than normal glass, has a higher refraction than glass, and is softer and easier to cut with a copper wheel.
Waterford Crystal, begun in 1783 in Ireland, is perhaps the most recognized name in crystal. Dealing mostly in clear crystal (except for cobalt blue cordials or hocks), Waterford has recently begun producing bowls and vases in vibrant colors, such as red, blue, and green.
A relatively new company in the crystal world is the firm of William Yeoward (begun in 1995 in the United Kingdom). Careful reproductions of Victorian and Georgian stemware patterns from the eighteenth and nineteenth century are a Yeoward specialty, and the firm was awarded the Royal Warrant of Appointment to supply crystal to His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, in 2008. Pearl, Fern, and Caroline are some of the most popular patterns for the registry of sophisticated and modern brides-to-be. (A useful reminder concerning fine crystal ice buckets: Never place ice in an ice bucket without first filling with a couple inches of room temperature water; this will help prevent the crystal from cracking from the shock of the cold ice.)
Perhaps more that any other country, France has excelled in the art of crystal production. Saint Louis is, by far, the oldest crystal manufacturer in France, having started in 1586. Saint Louis uses copper engraving wheels on most of their crystal, executed by masters who may apprentice for a decade or more. Baccarat is fairly old also, beginning in 1765. Incredibly fine crystal pieces are created by this firm, with very nice stemware. One such pattern is Harcourt, which is the Vatican’s pattern of choice since 1841 (yes, that is the goblet pattern used by the Pope). Daum Crystal, dating from 1875, uses a technique called pate de verre, or paste of glass, with a lost wax technique. The fourth French crystal of note is Lalique. This firm dates to 1881 when René Lalique started making jewelry, and then later, vases, bowls, hood ornaments, and stemware. This clear and frosted crystal is heavily collected by Sir Elton John, with Lalique selling any pieces in a numbered series to John first. For example: The monumental piece, Eden, weighs in at twenty-one pounds, costs $40,000, and features Adam and Eve fleeing their sure judgment on wings of crystal; this piece is displayed at Elton’s lavish Atlanta apartment (he saw it at Neiman Marcus and said “I’ll take it!”). Elton’s Atlanta apartment is full of limited edition Lalique pieces, beautifully and artfully displayed on almost every horizontal surface, as well as little niches built into the walls.
Glass from Sweden is most often associated with Orrefors and Kosta Boda, which are actually the same company. The former makes clear pieces, and the latter makes colored pieces of glass. The quality of their glass bowls, vases, and votives is superb, and affordably priced.
Murano glass has been produced on the island of Murano since the 10th century, after it was decided that the fire hazard from the furnaces was too great to be on the mainland of Venice, Italy. Pieces must be from Murano to technically carry that name. Venini first fired their furnaces in 1921, and often collaborates with world-renowned designers to create unique and avant-garde pieces. Gambaro & Poggi, another fine glass house in Murano, is known for its vivid color combinations, and an example of its work, a murrine votive holder, is available in booth B2024 for $24 (see photograph, above right).
The opening of Steuben in 1903 in Corning, New York, saw the beginnings of perhaps the best glass company in the United States. A striking example from this company’s furnaces is an American Eagle by Donald Pollard (see photograph, left). Located in B210 in the Showcase Room, the piece is priced at $598, with the Steuben base for an additional $49.95.
Crystal and glass are wonderful pieces to collect for adornment of the home. By owning such a piece, one can bring a sparkle to a room, and also the spark of a conversation. Because the storied glassmakers of history are a fascinating topic to explore.