The Crystal Palace

9 minute read
CHRISTINE WHITEHOUSE

It’s hard to see why Waterford, with few of Ireland’s traditional attractions, is so firm a fixture on a visitor’s itinerary. There’s no romantic coastline. There are no wild bogs or thatched farming villages. There isn’t a medieval castle. Yet every year, 355,000 people descend on this port city in southeastern Ireland — and head immediately for a nondescript modern building set in manicured gardens on its outskirts. They are here to observe a centuries-old craft: the making of Waterford Crystal. After a tour of the factory, where they watch the master craftsmen at work, they wander around the gift shop, where craftsmen are on hand to sign purchases with a portable cutting tool that looks and sounds a bit too much like a dentist’s drill. That doesn’t deter the crystal’s many devotees, who queue patiently for a signature that will turn an already special piece into a collector’s item.

Waterford’s craftsmen are accustomed to working under close scrutiny. In the center of a cavernous room — what employees refer to as the “hot end” of the business — master blowers work in teams of three or four around a massive furnace. In temperatures reaching 760C, a mix of silica sand, potash (potassium carbonate) and litharge (lead oxide) is transformed into molten lead crystal. Using traditional tools like hollow metal rods and handmade wooden molds, the blowers remove a glowing glob from the furnace and, seemingly oblivious to their transfixed audience, turn and blow the molten crystal until it begins to resemble a true Waterford creation. The company’s products range from elegant tableware to highly-prized trophies.

Glass-blowing requires a unique combination of strength, agility, hand-eye coordination and artistic panache. Master blower John O’Neill makes it look deceptively easy as he shapes the body of a jug. Now he must add a spout and a handle. An assistant reheats the rim of the jug in a small portable furnace known as the glory hole and holds the piece steady while O’Neill forms a spout using a steel rod. A second assistant carries over a small glob of molten crystal for the handle. O’Neill attaches the base of the handle to the jug and teases the glob into an arch with the rod. He has to judge when the handle is the right length and diameter before he cuts off any excess with shears and quickly attaches the upper end of the handle to the jug.

The smallest slip could destroy an entire piece. “On a good day we throw about 40% of what we make back into the furnace,” says supervisor Gary Cunningham. “It takes seven years to become a master blower. But in this job you never know it all. You’re working with live material, so the challenges come at you all the time.” Those pieces that make it past Cunningham’s eagle eye may not survive the lehr. Here, the glass is carried on giant rollers through annealing ovens, which slowly cool it to room temperature. After the unadorned crystal has been smoothed and washed, it is examined by a first-line quality control inspector. Gerry Walsh holds up a salt shaker, squints at it and points to a flaw that is barely visible to the untrained eye. “There we have a stone [a small particle of raw material], and it’s too deep-set to be cut out later,” he explains as he throws the shaker into a recycling bin. After 40 years with the company, Walsh knows what imperfections to look for — “seeds” (tiny air bubbles), “blisters” (larger air bubbles) and “cords” (faint streaks), as well as variations in the thickness of the crystal. In some cases, he can even tell whose handiwork a given piece is.

Walsh’s is the first of 16 quality checks, all of which are carried out by the human eye. Even during the final and most thorough inspection, just before packing, up to 2% of the crystal won’t meet the company’s stringent quality standards and will be sent back to the furnace. There are no Waterford seconds, not even in the staff canteen. “I don’t even get to take them home,” says ceo John Foley. “If we don’t keep our standards, we have nothing.”

After the heat and noise at the hot end, the “cold end” of the Waterford business is an oasis of calm, despite the constant whir of revolving cutting wheels and grinding stones. Here, the cutting teams create the intricate patterns that have distinguished Waterford Crystal since the 18th century. The designs are cut by hand using a diamond-tipped wheel, which replaced steel and ceramic cutting wheels as late as 1987.

Jim O’Shea marks a geometric pattern of horizontal and vertical lines onto a blank vase with a felt-tip pen. But this is only a rough guide. The ultimate position and depth of the cuts will be determined by sight and feel. O’Shea qualified as a master cutter after a five-year apprenticeship. That was 29 years ago, long enough to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of Waterford patterns. “We cut strictly from memory,” he says. “I have about 400 designs in my head, including 83 stemware patterns.” In the unlikely event that O’Shea does forget a pattern, he can refer to a library, now computerized, in which around 21,000 master product items are kept. Although Waterford may “retire” a pattern, it never discontinues any of its stemware designs, which are manufactured once or twice a year, depending on demand.

Peter Foskin, another 30-year veteran, also worked as a master cutter for many years. Then his interest in art led him to a five-year apprenticeship in engraving. He uses hand-made copper wheels, the finest of which is only the size of a pinhead, to decorate a piece. He maneuvers the crystal carefully beneath the wheels, removing the surface by grinding and sandblasting until a unique work of art emerges. “Even after 13 years, I do feel some pressure as I work to get it exactly right. If I make a mistake, I have to start again. But you get a feel for it, for the sounds the wheel makes against the glass,” he says as he puts the finishing touches to a commemorative bowl — one with classical Greek figurines for English fine china company Wedgwood, a subsidiary (like Waterford Crystal) of Waterford Wedg- wood — that has taken him six weeks to engrave.

Labor accounts for 70% of Waterford’s production costs. That high percentage is reflected in the prices: a brandy snifter can run to $100, a limited-edition St. Patrick’s Day vase could set a customer back $1,250, and a six-arm chandelier can cost as much as $2,400. Last year Waterford Wedgwood racked up record profits of $88.6 million, an increase of a quarter over 1999, on sales of $870 million. Waterford owes much of its good fortune to its devoted following in the U.S. America is not only the firm’s biggest market — two-thirds of all sales are generated there — but also its fastest growing, with revenues up 45% in 2000. Last November, an independent poll of American consumers ranked Waterford as the highest quality brand, ahead of Rolls Royce, Kodak and National Geographic magazine.

Waterford goes out of its way to cater to Americans’ infatuation with all things Irish. “They don’t want the Ireland of U2 or Roddy Doyle,” says Jim O’Leary, design director. “They want Glockamorra, this mystical, mythical thing that everyone gets caught up in on St. Patrick’s Day.” And that’s exactly what they get — through the promotional tours that master cutters and engravers regularly undertake in the U.S. and through product lines like the Romance of Ireland collection with its Rock of Cashel vase and Ring of Kerry bowl.

Despite the emphasis on nostalgia, Waterford is firmly rooted in the 21st century. New product lines — the less expensive Marquis by Waterford and a modern, minimalist range by fashion designer John Rocha — have extended the firm’s appeal to younger consumers and now account for a quarter of sales. The company is leveraging the brand for all it’s worth through extensions into jewelry and linen.

It has started (belatedly and somewhat reluctantly) to embrace the Internet: its new website, http://www.waterfordcrystal.com, which is due to go live in autumn, will be “a marketing tool rather than a virtual store,” says ceo Foley. “Buying crystal is a sensual experience. You can’t get that over the Internet.” Waterford has also boosted its efficiency with a $7.5 million supply-chain management system that enables a defect detected during inspection, for example, to be flagged on every PC throughout the production process. In a more radical departure from tradition, the firm has cut labor costs by automating the blowing of much of its stemware and outsourcing the production of new lines, and some old, to factories in Central Europe.

Foley denies that Waterford’s high standards could be compromised, insisting that quality control remains firmly in Irish hands. He also brushes aside the suggestion that reducing the reliance on local craftsmen is a contingency plan for the future. There are currently no apprentices at Waterford — in a booming economy such as Ireland’s, there are easier ways for young people to earn a good living.

But Foley says there’s no need to recruit the next generation of master craftsmen just yet. He has more pressing concerns: the aftershocks of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain on the tourist trade and the downturn in the U.S. economy. In a slowing global economy, luxury items like crystal could suffer. But then again, what better way to forget your troubles than to close your eyes … and imagine you’re in Glockamorra.

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