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LEAD CRYSTAL: A RAINBOW OF COLORS

NEW YORK – Delicate, strong, practical and decorative, glass has proven to be a wonder of everyday life since the age of the Babylonians, nearly 3,500 years ago. 

Since the beginning of time volcanoes have produced a sort of hardened glass with natural elements mixed in when molten lava cools on the surface. Commercial glassmaking has many similarities. Mix immense heat with opaque materials such as silica (sand), quartz and soda-lime to produce a substance that can be molded and solidified into rather light, completely clear everyday objects like windows, jars, drinking vessels, and any number of useful items, even glass lenses that correct vision. Useful to be sure, silicate glass, as it is known, is usually too fragile and not quite clear enough to be made into a highly decorative design. 

A rare Dorflinger ‘Montrose’ cut glass two-piece punchbowl, circa 1900, with a dozen matching glasses and ladle sold for $132,000 in 2014. Image courtesy DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

To correct that, glassmakers found that the addition of lead oxide produces a clearer, more refractive material that when molded and hand cut into decorative vases, decanters, glassware, artwork and chandeliers produced a rainbow of color when turned toward bright light, something silicate glass lacked. Adjust the amount of lead oxide from as low as 3% to as high as 40% and the glass produces an even higher level of sparkle and color with an increasingly more substantial weight. This product is commonly called crystal. 

Lead crystal is refined

Even though glass with oxides had been produced throughout the Middle East and China since ancient times, it wasn’t until 1674 when George Ravenscroft was awarded a patent by King Charles II for his lead oxide process that produced a much higher quality of more iridescent glass. His early attempts resulted in “crizzling,” or small cracks, but by 1676 the process was refined enough to eliminate crizzling altogether which finally made leaded crystal, as it became known, more commercially viable. Within three years, however, Ravenscroft sold off his glass company in London and left glassmaking entirely. Only about 20 original pieces from this period (marked with a raven’s head and some crizzling) survive with most on public display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. 

A crystal decanter marked ‘Baccarat/France’ recently sold at auction for $312 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium). Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers

The secret to the success of lead crystal, Ravenscroft found, was in its production. Silicate glass is produced at a higher temperature and cools rapidly so it needed to be molded rather quickly. Creating intricate detail wasn’t possible. With the addition of lead oxide, production could be completed at a lower temperature making the molten glass more elastic and much stronger. Once cooled, skilled artisans were able to hand- or machine-cut intricate jeweled designs and patterns that easily brought out the sparkle of rainbow colors evident in high quality crystal. 

Handmade amber and blue spear prisms enhanced this Baccarat crystal chandelier that sold for $98,400 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium) in 2012. Image courtesy New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Once Ravencroft’s patent expired in 1681, production increased exponentially in and around London and throughout Europe over the next 100 years to take advantage of the need for highly decorative but functional lead glass. Familiar names such as Waterford (Ireland, 1783), Baccarat (France, 1764), Kosta Boda (Sweden, 1742), Hadeland Glassverk (Norway, 1765) and Gus Crystal (Russia, 1756) set the standard for a dazzling array of unique crystal displays fit for royal families and special occasions everywhere. 

American Brilliant period

The United States was finally recognized for its hand-cut lead crystal designs beginning with the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pa. Companies competed to show meticulously hand-cut lead crystal goblets, plates, decanters and all manner of decorative bottles, bowls, candlesticks, covered jars and glassware that rivaled those produced in Europe.

Because of the pressure necessary to achieve the deeply cut patterns, only glass containing a level of lead could withstand the process. Industry standards classify glass containing a minimum of 30% lead crystal as full lead crystal. Glass having a minimum of 24% lead content is called half lead crystal.

This massive three-handle cut glass loving cup in an unknown pattern was possibly designed by J. Hoare & Co. Its embossed sterling silver rim is marked Tiffany & Co. It sold for $31,625 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium) in 2015. Image courtesy Woody Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Many U.S. glassmakers produced intricately cut crystal during what is called the American Brilliant Period, from 1876 to about 1917. Companies such as Libby, Steuben and Corning, for example, produced creative designs such as Chrysanthemum and Grecian so distinctive that they were commissioned to create official gifts for the White House and the State Department.

Other cut glass manufacturers of the Brilliant Period include Dorflinger, Egginton, Hawkes, J. Hoare, Jewel, Meriden, Sinclaire and Tuthill, according to the American Cut Glass Association (cutlass.org). Some have etched marks that identify the maker. Pieces made before for the 1890s were not signed.

What collectors look for

No matter the period, collectors recognize lead crystal glass immediately by the heavier weight compared to silicate glass. The sparkle and shine are more brilliant, the rainbow of colors that emerges with light is more pronounced and the familiar “ping” produced when toasting a special occasion is more musical. 

Collectors of the American Brilliant Period particularly search for unusual colors such as green, blue, turquoise and ruby. Punch bowls and cake stands are particularly sought after, according to collectors and dealers alike. 

Consider how sunlight fills a room with rainbow colors through this dichroic lead crystal cube by Toland Peter Sand that sold for $406 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium) in 2015. Image courtesy Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Because of the high amount of handwork involved in its decoration, cut glass has always been expensive. After 1920, pressed glass became more the norm and is easily recognized by its lighter weight and smooth surfaces in the design.

Lead crystal as a collectible? Not to worry

The use of lead crystal is quite safe if a few simple rules are followed. Wine glasses and decanters containing lead oxide are safe to use for a few hours, university studies have shown. Simply wash the glassware before and after use and don’t store anything in them. Don’t serve anything very hot in lead crystal bowls or on plates as they will have a tendency to crack. 

There are lead-free alternatives that substitute different oxides such as zinc or potassium which is helpful for everyday use. And because of its limited use, early decorative lead glass is more easily available at auction. 

There’s no denying the satisfying feel, the brilliant sparkle and the uniquely musical ping of early lead crystal. Within the cautionary limits, display lead crystal vases, bowls, candlesticks, and glassware under light or near an open window as it waits for the morning sun to shine a rainbow throughout a room. That’s what makes their collectibility brilliantly clear. 

The Enduring Value of Baccarat Crystal

Baccarat calls itself the world’s most renowned crystal manufacturer, and after two and a half centuries in operation, few would argue that claim.

The company’s chandeliers have illuminated the grandest palaces, halls and restaurants around the world. Its crystal stemware has graced the tables of monarchs, presidents and popes. Its bottles have held the most expensive fragrances.

An assortment of Baccarat Harcourt glassware. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Main Auction Gallery

The company now known as Baccarat began modestly in 1764 in the town of Baccarat in the Lorraine region of France, which has a tradition of glassmaking. The glasshouse’s early output consisted mainly of utilitarian soda glass. A change in ownership in 1817 led to the production of lead-crystal glass.

Awarded a gold medal at the National Exhibition of Industrial Products in 1823 for its crystal, Baccarat’s first royal commission was a table service for King Louis XVIII and the Tuileries Palace in Paris.

This Baccarat Louis XV-style dore bronze chandelier from the turn of the 20th century sold for more than $50,000 at Dallas Auction Gallery in 2009. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and Dallas Auction Gallery

On a visit by King Charles X in 1828, Baccarat honored the French monarch with a cut crystal pitcher bearing the arms of France and Navarre in gold.

In 1832 Baccarat opened its first shop in Paris at 30 rue de Paradis. Festooned with chandeliers, it is billed as a temple dedicated to crystal.

The company was awarded a second gold medal at the 1839 National Exhibition of Industrial Products, this time for its colored crystal. Eight years later, the company introduced its now-famous Baccarat Red, using 24K gold powder as the key ingredient in the formula.

Based on a commission by French sovereign Louis-Philippe, Baccarat introduced its iconic Harcourt crystal tableware line in 1841. Baccarat describes the design thusly: “The purity of its crystal exemplifies the Baccarat signature, with its generous base perched on a wide, hexagonal foot and its gently curved facets catching and enhancing the light.”

Antique Baccarat paperweight, 1848, complex cane and millefiori with a rare choufleur carpet ground. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and S.B. & Company.

Baccarat also produced fine paperweights decorated with colorful millefiori and glass cane elements from 1845 to the 1880s.

World’s fairs held in Paris in 1855, 1867 and 1878 helped to spread Baccarat’s appeal worldwide. The company was awarded the grand prize in 1867 for a 7-meter-tall chandelier and a monumental pair of cut-crystal vases. Baccarat won the grand prize again in 1870 with a rotunda-shaped crystal temple as large as a Victorian gazebo.

The international exposure prompted commissions from the Ottoman Empire and Nicholas II of Russia. In 1909, Japan’s imperial house ordered the Beauvais tableware service from Baccarat, a masterpiece of simplicity, embellished by the imperial emblem: a stylized chrysanthemum flower, wheel engraved with a matte finish.

A close-up shows the detail of the engraving on one of a pair of vases created for the International Exposition of 1867. Baccarat’s Jean Baptiste Simon worked for two years on the twin vases titled ‘The Allegory of Water’ and ‘The Allegory of Earth.’ Image by Nitot. File licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

The 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris ushered in Art Déco, or Art Moderne, and Baccarat’s young designer Georges Chevalier propelled the company’s product lines into modernity “thanks to luminous transparency of the crystal and the lightness of the decoration.”

Surviving the global Great Depression and World War II, Baccarat opened its first boutique in New York City in 1948. Celebrity customers included playwright Arthur Miller, who purchased a Baccarat Soleil clock for the Manhattan apartment he shared with his wife, Marilyn Monroe.

In 1971 Baccarat turned to Italian designer Roberto Sambonnet, who created blown crystal in perfectly controlled organic forms. The company also updated its palette with pop-art colors.

Large vase at the Baccarat exhibition at Petit Palais of Paris in 2014-2015. Image by Yann Caradec. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The Louvre Museum marked the glassmaker’s 200th anniversary with a retrospective in 1964. Baccarat celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2014-2015 with a retrospective exhibition of more than 500 pieces at the Petit Palais Museum of Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Collectors and connoisseurs appreciate all things Baccarat, no matter the vintage: glasses, plates, centerpieces, animal sculptures, perfume bottles, lighting and even jewelry. Baccarat’s objects of desire are evocative of all forms of elegance.

7 Adorable Swarovski Animals You Will Want in Your Collection

While you may not be able to cuddle with them, Swarovski’s crystal animal figurines are quite adorable. For background, Swarovski is an Austrian producer of cut lead glass founded by Daniel Swarovski in 1895. While they company primarily creates fashion design crystals and optics such as telescopes, their body of work also includes figurines, jewelry and couture, chandeliers, and more. Swarovski’s mastery in crystal cutting and passion for innovation and design has made it the one of the world’s premier jewelry and accessory brands.

Below we’ve picked out a few of our favorites from the animal kingdom that are almost too cute to not cuddle with.

Cinta Elephant Mother

Swarovski Cinta Elephant Mother Crystal Figurine, Est. $100-$200

Swarovski Cinta Elephant Mother Crystal Figurine, Est. $100-$200

The Dolphin

Swarovski Dolphin Crystal Figurine, Est. $50-$150

Swarovski Dolphin Crystal Figurine, Est. $50-$150

Wildlife Pandas

Two Swarovski Wildlife Panda Figurines, Est. $200-$400

Two Swarovski Wildlife Panda Figurines, Est. $200-$400

The Lion

Swarovski Lion Figurine, Est. $50-$150

Swarovski Lion Figurine, Est. $50-$150

Siku Polar Bear

Swarovski Siku Polar Bear Crystal Figurine, Est. $50-$150

Swarovski Siku Polar Bear Crystal Figurine, Est. $50-$150

Paikea Whale

Swarovski Paikea Whale Crystal Figurine, Est. $50-$150

Swarovski Paikea Whale Crystal Figurine, Est. $50-$150

The Dolphins, 1990

Swarovski Dolphins Crystal Figurine, Est. $50-$150

Swarovski Dolphins Crystal Figurine, Est. $50-$150

Do you have any Swarovski figurines in your collection? Snap a pic and share them with us on Twitter or Instagram @byjasper52.