"" Writer's Wanderings: Waterford Crystal

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Waterford Crystal

While glass making in Ireland dates back to the 13th century, the Waterford Crystal that is so famous was begun in 1783 when two brothers, George and William Penrose, started their crystal making in the town of Waterford. They were renowned for their crystal but unfortunately less than 100 years later, the company failed. In 1947, a crystal company was started up again in Waterford. This time the company flourished and, as they say, the rest is history.

Recently the company reduced its size and moved its headquarters into the city. A couple thousand employees, including artisans, were laid off. What has happened, we suspect, is that many of the artisans have set up their own small shops in other towns throughout Ireland. There is crystal to be had almost any where you turn.

The tour through the Waterford complex was a lot nicer than we expected. We actually got to see close up how the crystal pieces are made. It was amazing. After a short video, our first stop was the wooden mold shop where we watched a worker use a large lathe to make a mold that would help to shape one of the glass products. On the ledge near us was a mold marked "American Football." Keep that thought for later on.

Next we got to watch one of the glass blowers work his magic on a glob of hot glass. What makes the glass crystal is the added lead content. Lead oxide or "red lead" is added to the glass formula.
The glass was shaped and reheated and shaped some more. As he blew into it, he placed it in one of the wooden molds to be sure the shape would be standard. The piece is then placed in a cooling unit that gently brings the temperature down.

Quality control comes next. The pieces are inspected for flaws and rough edges sanded down. Then they are ready for the truly interesting part--the cutting.

The pieces, in this case vases, are placed on a turn table that is set up with black ink pens that draw lines on the glass to guide the artisans who will cut the familiar patterns into the vase. I was amazed at their concentration even with the tour group standing so near. At the end of the room there were two large cabinets where large bowls were being cut by robots. Sad to think artisans might be replaced by machines.

Once the glass is cut, the piece is put in a solution of sulfuric and hydrofluoric acid for a specified time which makes all the milkiness disappear and leaves only the clear sparkling crystal.

At another station, we watched other artisans carve special order pieces like trophies. Remember the American Football mold? It was actually for the NCAA College Bowl and we were probably the closest any Buckeye will get to it this year.

One piece we saw on display during the tour that caught my eye was a scene of Santa sitting in a rocker surrounded by a Christmas tree and presents. The unusual thing was that you looked through a window etched in one side of the vase to the scene etched on the other side of the vase.

After seeing how it is all made, I have a new appreciation for Waterford Crystal. Still, considering the breakage in the dish washing process at home, I'm still not sure I want to spend that much money on glasses for our table.

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