The History of Waterford Crystal: From Humble Beginnings to the Big Apple
The story of the world-famous Waterford Crystal is rooted deep in the heart of South East Ireland, in the country’s oldest city. Skill, craft and tradition have gone into making this hand cut crystal brand a global powerhouse. The name is now synonymous with classical, prestigious, top quality crystal products and statement pieces.
But there have been a few interesting9 bends along the journey, which makes it a fascinating story both from a commercial and a cultural perspective…...
Although the beginnings of Irish glass making are literally lost in time, there is enough archaeological evidence to suggest that glass was being produced and given great respect as far back as the Iron age. There is also plenty of historical evidence of glass making activity through medieval Ireland and beyond the 15th century; however it was Waterford Crystal that really took this local craft and developed it into a significant international business.
In October 1783, George and William Penrose founded their crystal manufacturing business in the city. Within a year, the business was in full operation as the Penrose’s made all kinds of useful and ornamental flint glass. Inevitably, the factory began to grow. In search of the best craftsmen, blowers, cutters and engravers - it’s said that it cost the Penrose’s £1000 to build and equip the factory. At this point it employed 50-70 workers.
The key Ingredient: A compounder
In 1785, John Hill (known as a renowned glassmaker of Stourbridge) was brought in as a compounder; the only man who knew the secret of mixing the glass materials. As the Penrose’s were chiefly businessmen, their area of expertise was not in glassmaking itself. It was Hill who began the process of polishing the glass - to give Waterford Crystal its now distinctive and famous look.
However, after a falling out with the Penrose’s, John Hill left after just 3 years in Waterford – returning to England. But fortunately for Waterford Crystal, he did pass the secret formula for glass compounding to 1 man: The clerk Jonathan Gatchell. Armed with this valuable information, Gatchell rose up the ranks to compounder. He eventually became the sole owner of the glasshouse and remained in charge until his death in 1823, after 40 years at the company – giving the business valuable stability and longevity in those early years.
While the demand had been growing, the obstacles grew too. For example, in 1811 there was a new law: flint glass made in Ireland and exported was liable to duty. While Jonathan Gatchell’s son George took over and did what he could, and the company continued to produce glass for a further 28 years after his father’s death. Ultimately the challenges grew too strong and the factory sadly ceased production in Ireland in 1851. By the end of the 19th century, the entire glass making industry in Ireland was on its knees.
The Rebirth of Waterford Crystal
Fast forward almost a century later - to Post World War 2 years - and Charles Bacik of Czechoslovakia was facing a communist take over in his home country. Ultimately, he decided to head west and came to Waterford to help set up a crystal factory in 1947. Initially a small factory set up in Ballytruckle, Waterford – 1.5 miles from the original site. On a recruitment hunt, Backik and colleague Noel Griffin travelled across Europe and hired 30 blowers and cutters to train Irish apprentices. One of the recruits was Miroslav Havel - a blower also from Czechoslovakia. One of the first things Havel did upon arrival was to study the old pattern books from the Waterford glass works from the previous century.
Havel went on to become the chief designer at Waterford Crystal and he is credited with designing the now iconic Lismore Pattern.
Waterford Crystal Grows
With further capital investment, Waterford Crystal made its first profits in 1955- bear in mind it had been set up in its new incarnation 8 years earlier so it has been a long haul. But with the addition of new furnaces and new sites, Waterford’s vision of being right at the top of the world’s crystal industry began to gather pace. From 1958, it was decided that it would no longer go through its American agent but rather go directly into stores. Consequently, the 1960s and 70s saw the demand for Waterford Crystal grow dramatically. To meet the demands, new sites at Dungarvan and Kilbarry (which was almost a 10 acre site!) were established.
New Year’s Eve for New York’s Millenniums Celebrations
As Waterford’s Crystal’s name and reputation grew, one of its most iconic moments was to commemorate the millennium in Time Square, NY. An estimated 1.2 billion people watched as the six-foot diametric crystal ball was lowered down the pole during the New York countdown to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium. An iconic moment that catapulted Waterford Crystal to the centre of world attention (at least for the countdown!)
Final Words on Waterford Crystal
Yet despite the globalisation of the brand and its popularity, competitive pressures heavily impacted the commercial viability of the business. A new company promoting luxury brands - Waterford Wedgewood Royal Doulton (WWRD Holdings) - took over the brand and in 2009 the Kilbarry plant was sadly shut down, and the loss of employment was a devastating blow to the local community.
However within a short time, in 2010 production started again locally back on a site very close to the original facility and a Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre opened – it’s well worth a visit if you are over that direction. And while the financial crisis had a huge impact on the plans for the business, the new Waterford Crystal Manufacturing facility was acquired by Fiskars, a Finnish manufacturer of luxury home products. This brings the potential for fresh investment into the business and manufacturing continues locally in Waterford, where the current factory is said to meltdown more than 750 tonnes of Crystal each year and produce more than 45,000 pieces p.a.
So if you want to invest in a brand that’s known for its iconic cultural status and its long association with the very best of Irish craftsmanship – you can’t go wrong with our Waterford Crystal Collection – please do get in touch with us or call into one of our stores.
Tierney’s Gifts itself is over 40 years in business and we’ve been proud to stock this brand throughout our history. One great brand deserves another….!