Chasing crystals

For all its chequered past, Waterford Crystal still holds all the magic you expect from a legend, writes Sheila kumar, after a tour of the crystal factory in Ireland.
“Why Waterford,” asks Bryan, my host. “They have fallen on bad times. Most of the products are now made in eastern Europe.” In his tone, I hear the outrage felt by an Irishman faced with the decline of one of Ireland’s biggest brands.

I contemplate telling him of a childhood fascination with the crystal, in the delicate bowls and decanters that stood in my grandmother’s glass-fronted cupboard.

I contemplate telling him how I still remember the feel of the heavy crystal in my hand, the ringing sound it emitted when I flicked a thumbnail on the rim, on the rare occasion I got to hold a piece. I wonder if I can describe the remembrance of times long past without sounding somewhat over-sentimental.

Bryan’s misgivings notwithstanding, I head for the Crystal County, the city of Waterford on the banks of the Suir. The river is a thick brown flow and the buzz in the air is all about some upcoming yachting championship. My friend and I ask for directions to the Waterford crystal factory, and it takes three to four queries to be sent down the right road.

We finally find the newish mini factory tucked away down a side street. There is the regulation crowd of tourists (2,50,000 people visit here every year), the obligatory retail outlet, and a café. We decide to do the tour the other way round, starting with coffee. Our side order of sandwiches takes more than 40 minutes to arrive. We are less than charmed. What were we about, coming out to the south-east of Ireland to get an up-close-and-personal look at some crystal?

Two minutes into the tour of the factory, though, all misgivings vanish. We are seamlessly sucked into the world of crystal; the guide’s comprehensive commentary is neatly complemented by the friendly workmen stopping their work to tell us whatever we want to know.

We watch as silica sand, potash and red lead (letharge) is mixed within a furnace raging at 1,200 degrees C. The blowers, using positively Medieval wooden blocks and moulds, then start to fashion shapes from the molten crystal. The heat of the furnace makes its way to the level where we stand watching. Apparently, in order to achieve uniformity, every piece of molten crystal has a precise quantity of air blown into it, at precise points.
Next comes the intricate task of cutting facets onto the crystal with diamond-tipped wheels. Bent over in fierce concentration, the craftsmen make it look effortless, but we aren’t fooled. It’s all about the amount of pressure applied… too little or too much and the piece is ruined.

The sculpting and engraving process follows and we watch as sides of statement pieces and trophies come alive with lines, disks and bevelled panels. Quality control is a ruthless act at Waterford. Stringent inspections at every stage ensure the final piece is that cliché come alive: a piece of gleaming flawlessness. And in the process, one piece of folklore is confirmed for me. Waterford Crystal does not keep seconds. Any ‘flawed’ piece is thrown back into the furnace. Ah, the price of perfection. We are shown several pieces that have been kept aside to go back into the furnace; I peer hard but if there are any imperfections, it is invisible to the layman’s eye.

If Waterford is arguably the leading brand of premium crystal today, it is despite a chequered history; lack of capital has dogged this enterprise, off and on, ever since 1783 when George and William Penrose set up a flint glass factory. In no time, expert glassmakers working for the Penrose brothers, raised the bar by quite a few notches and the Waterford Glass Factory had all the makings of a true legend. Soon, almost every European home had a piece of Ireland, in the form of glassware, vases, lighting, curio ornaments. Across the continent to the USA was a  logical progression, and the Irish émigrés ensured the crystal was a big hit out there.

Then, bad times hit, mainly in the form of punitive taxes, and in 1851, the company faced closure. Cut to the next century and by the 1940s, the revamped, re-launched company was back in business. The next four decades were the glory days; the company grew from strength to strength, adding exquisite new lines.

By the 1950s, Waterford crystal was just about everywhere, from Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. In New York, the 2,668 crystals in the famous New Year’s Eve Ball that are dropped each year in Times Square, are all Waterford ware.

Sporting trophies crafted by Waterford, such as the Masters Series crystal shield trophies, the AFCA National Championship Trophy, a representation of the Ashes urn, the winning trophies for the French and German Grand Prix in Formula One, a bat and ball trophy presented at the final game at Yankee Stadium to Derek Jeter and a glass tennis racket for Boris Becker, are all as beautiful as they are famous. In the music world, they design the trophies for the People’s Choice Awards.

However, bad times rolled round again, this time in the 21st century and in 2009, Waterford Crystal Limited, which was by then a subsidiary of Waterford Wedgwood plc, went into receivership. Now, Waterford Crystal, a wide range of stemware, barware and giftware, is produced in other locations throughout Europe, like Germany and the Czech Republic, by the company WWRD Holdings Ltd.

Once we are done with the factory tour, we head for the retail outlet, but of course. The fabled lines of Waterford crystal are all here on display — chandeliers, vases, glassware, exquisite bowls, Celtic crosses, exquisitely fashioned animals, and all sorts of knick-knacks. Sure, they don’t come cheap but then, legends never do.

I pick up a heavy unembellished wine glass and lightly ping its rim. The deep resonant sound it gives out is intrinsically satisfying. This is a sound I have waited for years to hear. Moreover, I’m told I’m in good company: Waterford crystal is supposed to have the clearest ring of all glasses. At dinner parties, people would invariably tap their crystal to hear what type of ring it would produce.

Out in the tepid sunshine, I turn to my friend who, I suspect, had been humouring me by coming out to Waterford city. She catches the question in my eyes and smiles. “It was worth it,” she tells me.  Indeed, it was. Bryan, if you are reading this…

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