Waterford Crystal ... the name evokes images of sparkling cut-glass goblets, bowls, vases, whiskey tumblers and artworks, all with an Irish twist. Mainly because the workshops are located on the Emerald Isle. The history may hint at a far more Eastern European origin and imported skills, but a bowl made in Waterford City ranks among the gifts Irish politicians tend to give on state visits.
Waterford Crystal - A Complicated Story
There wasn't really a moment when the artisans of Waterford discovered glass blowing and subsequent glass cutting, thereby creating a brand that endures ... though cut glass has come from Waterford for some time, the real story of Waterford Crystal really kicked off with some Eastern European immigrants, well versed in the art of producing quality glassware, that set up a workshop in Ireland's South-East.
Even this wasn't an unqualified success - while the glass itself was of high quality, the business itself flagged now and then for a variety of reasons. So what we are seeing today is another incarnation of Waterford Crystal, a relatively new company using the older brand name. Fortunately, the skilled staff actually producing the wares remained ...
Waterford Crystal - The Process
During a visit to the factory you will be taken through all the basic steps needed to produce a piece of Waterford Crystal. Starting with mould-making, where wooden moulds are produced. But the glass itself is blown (the next step, by glass-blowers whose cheeks would put jazz trumpeters to shame), the painstakingly made mould is just a guide. Out of molten crystal a glass vessel is produced this way ... a harrowing bit of work that involves a furnace operating at 1,400 degrees Celsius.
But a simple glass vessel is not what Waterford Crystal is all about.
The next step is the most important in producing the desired end product. After careful inspection of the "raw" glass (fail the inspection and you are crushed and sent back to the furnace), the passed specimens are handed to the cutters. And they grab diamond-tipped tools, cutting into the glass to create the design asked for. Slip and the design is history. Apply too much pressure and there is a hole in the glass. Apparently, glass cutters learn their craft for about eight years before they are let lose ...
In the end, a molten blob of crystal is transformed, via the plain glass stage, into Waterford Crystal - you can see the whole process during a factory tour. My hands started shaking just watching those guys taking diamond to glass.
Waterford Crystal as Art
Is it less a challenge or more? While the outcome of glass-cutting on a bowl is pretty much pre-determined by the design, creating an artwork out of a solid chunk of glass is a much more free-flowing process. So to say. Yes, you want to create an eagle. But it is a piece of art, it can be slighty different from the other eagle you created.
Sculpting out of solid glass is another part of Waterford Crystal, and here the craftsman truly meets the artist. Obviously, much more time and effort has to be put into the actual work. This reflects in the price for some of the most stunning pieces on show.
Shop ... But Don't Drop It
The factory tours and the sumptuous display of finished Waterford Crystal are, to be quite honest, the visitor-friendly side of a commercial operation. So, in the end, you finish up in a sales area. Which is fair enough (the same is done for instance at the Bushmills Distillery or at Newbridge Silverware and its "Museum of Style Icons").
So drop in, maybe shop for that special souvenir - and don't forget to ask whether you can claim your VAT back ...
And when you are finished ... don't forget to visit the nearby Waterford Museum of Treasures - actually three museums detailing the history of the city.