After the natural beauty we saw from the top of Hook Lighthouse, we made our way along pretty little Irish roads, across the Passage East ferry, and into the very busy city of Waterford. We were here to see beauty of the man-made kind at the House of Waterford Crystal.
History of Waterford Crystal
Waterford Crystal was started in the late 18th century by George and William Penrose when they were granted aid by Parliament to start the manufacture of flint glass. Within a year they had the factory up and running producing many different pieces from their staff of 50-70 of the best craftsmen, blowers, cutters, and engravers. Being more businessmen than glass specialists they brought on board a man named John Hill who knew the best secrets to mixing glass materials and suggested polishing the glass after cutting to remove the “frosted” look, which has since become one Waterford’s signatures of clarity and purity. For almost 70 years Waterford flourished before disastrous economic conditions in 1851 forced its closure.
After 100 years the story of Waterford Crystal resumes. A glassmaker named Kael Bacik hired Miroslav Havel as Chief Designer and together they brought Waterford Crystal back to life. They studied examples of the Penrose brothers’ crystal and their traditional cutting patterns became the design basis for the new company. Havel created the now iconic “Lismore”, which remains the world’s best-selling crystal pattern.
But it wasn’t all clear sailing for Waterford even then. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Waterford Crystal was again hit with a major financial crisis due to the fall in the value of the dollar, decline in demand, and some costly restructuring attempts. Fortunately some new investors stepped in to help keep it going. On New Year’s Eve 2000, Waterford Crystal in the spotlight and seen by an estimated 1.2 billion people as their crystal ball was lowered in Times Square, New York City to ring in the new millennium. Unfortunately by 2009 it was announced that Waterford Crystal was having issues again and was in receivership but again, help arrived when a US based firm stepped in and had the funds to keep it going.
In 2010 the Waterford Crystal Manufacturing Facility was opened and since then more than 800,000 people have visited the store and factory tour to see how the new factory maintains very strong ties with its predecessors, especially with their dedication to purity, design, and quality. If a piece is not perfect it is broken, melted down, and started again. It is as simple as that. We were very eager to join our tour to see how these beautiful pieces are created.
Factory Tour of Waterford Crystal
We had booked our tickets in advance so it was just a quick check-in process when we arrived. We waited a few minutes for the tour to begin, resisting the urge to venture too far into their glittering retail showroom and possibly lose track of time and miss our tour. Once the rest of our little group had congregated we were taken to the building next door to begin the tour.
We started in a room where our guide gave us the history of the company and we could see many different pieces from over the years to show how some of the designs evolved. There is also the most spectacular grandfather clock here that you’ll definitely want to check out. From there we went into a mirrored room to watch a quick video that showed us all the (unexpected) places you’ll find Waterford Crystal. It is so much more than just fine goblets to drink wine from! Then it was into the factory where the magic happens.
Waterford Crystal is one of the few companies that continues a practice that is centuries old- the craft of mould making. Made from beech and pear wood for their smoothness and high tolerance to heat, moulds are used by the Master Blowers to shape the molten crystal. Even with their tolerance to heat the moulds only have a life span of about 7-10 days and you can very clearly see the scorch marks on the ones they have on display, some of which were used to create special pieces such as the Saint Patrick’s Day Shamrock Bowl for President Barack Obama.
See it in action: Mould Making Video
Definitely one of my favourite parts of the tour the Blowing Department has heat, noise, and lots of activity. Starting with the furnaces that reach 1300 °C to turn the crystal into molten red-hot blobs, to the Master Blowers who turn those blobs into elegant shapes right before your eyes. They are focused and meticulous as they work and I likely could have stood there all day watching them. I wonder if the Master Blowers ever get tired of folks coming by all day staring at them in fascination.
As the crystal cools you watch it turn from orange to clear- but even clear it must still be really hot if the looks of the mitts they use to hold it with are anything to go by!
Washing & Quality Inspection
Next up the pieces have the caps removed that held them to the blow pipe, they are ground until the rough edges are removed, and then washed.
The crystal is then inspected (one of six inspections each piece will be put through) and if it isn’t up to Waterford’s impeccable standards it is rejected, smashed, and sent back to the furnace to be melted again.
See it in action: Quality and Finishing
Next up is the hand marking area where each piece has a temporary grid marked on it to assist the Master Cutters when they cut the pattern. The grid is horizontal and vertical guidelines using markers that gets removed at a later stage in another round of cleaning.
We watched this gentleman at work for quite a few minutes as he would make one line, then make slight adjustments to each of the arms holding a marker, then another line, and another minute adjustment and so on. Each piece could take several minutes to mark (like this water goblet) to possibly hours with some of the very intricate and detailed custom pieces.
See it in action: Hand Marking and Cutting
Each pattern that was drawn on in the hand marking area will have been learned and memorized by the cutter in his training years – which is a minimum of eight years! The Master Cutters learn two types of cutting- Wedge Cutting and Flat Cutting. They rely on their training and skills to judge how much pressure is needed to get the cut right; too much pressure and they’ll cut right through to the other side. Some very intricate pieces are now cut by diamond tipped wheels controlled by computers to allow for even more precision.
Other pieces are actually sculpted, much like stone is except with a wheel instead of mallets and chisels. In this process the Master Sculptor creates a 3D piece from a solid block of crystal. These pieces can take up to months to create and, not surprisingly, can cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. There are some beautiful examples on display along the tour- just be careful not to bump into one of the tables holding them! How disastrous would that be?
See it in action: Sculpting
The final department on the tour is at the engraving area where a technique called “Intaglio”, which means reverse, is used. The deeper the engraving the more prominent the object appears. This is used on many of the international sporting trophies and limited edition pieces that Waterford creates- many of such examples can be seen on the tables along this area.
See it in action: Engraving
The final piece on the tour is a scene that many people will recognize immediately. It has a plaque that reads:
In Remembrance of Fr. Mychal Judge
Who was one of the 343 FDNY, 37 PAPD, & 23 NYPD Officers who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001 while trying to save others.
This piece is dedicated to all the Rescue Workers.
At this point the hour long tour concludes and we were surprised to find ourselves back in the original building where we had started, but this time at the back of the retail store. And what a beautiful store it is- especially if you are a fan of crystal. You could browse for ages in here looking at all their different designs, special pieces, and for me- tree ornaments. But oh my, some of the prices. After the tour I can easily see why the pieces are as expensive as they are. They are so detailed, hand cut, and kept to standards of perfection, but I had to tear myself away and leave with only photos and memories of a really fascinating tour.
Have you ever taken this tour? What did you think? And did you bring home any crystal treasures?
To read more about our adventures on our Ireland Road Trip, please feel free to check out these posts:
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