At first cut, the idea of combining fine leaded glass crystal and Vikings doesn’t make a lot of sense. What good is a Viking with a glass jaw?
The crystal in question is Waterford Crystal, and as we were in Waterford, Ireland it should come as no surprise we toured the crystal factory and store.
Waterford Crystal started off over 200 years ago, in 1783, and has existed (or not) with varying degrees of success since then.
Things moved along well, at least at first, with the crystal gaining a good reputation. Then, in 1811, the first major snag hit when the government imposed an export duty on flint glass (an early version of leaded glass). In 1825 they increased the duty, reducing the margins to a point of questionable profitability. The company struggled on for another 25 years, but by 1851 it had become unsustainable and the factory closed.
Fast forward nearly 100 years. Come 1947, Charles Bacik escaped the onset of communism in his native Czechoslovakia, and after recruiting glass artists from around continental Europe started a new factory in Ballytruckle, a suburb of Waterford. One of these artists was Miroslav Havel, another Czech. Miroslav was skilled in several glass disciplines as well as design; it was he that resurrected the patterns from the original factory and created the Lismore pattern, Waterford’s most popular. Starting in 1955, the company was turning a profit.
Things took off from there. They built new factories. They bought new companies, including and Wedgwood and All Clad. Everything looked rosy. At least until the late 1980s.
The declining dollar and declining demand, labor costs, and other issues caused a financial crisis. Only acquiring new investment in the early 90s saved the company. And again, for a while, things developed and things grew. Their fame spread, and even the millennium New Years Eve ball in Times Square used Waterford Crystals.
Then 2008 hit, along with its recession. Most folks didn’t have extra cash to lay out for fancy glass doodads, and the company nearly went belly up, going into receivership. Pieces of the company were sold, deals were made, and once again they scraped through. By 2015, what was left was acquired by the Fiskar Corporation.
The latest Waterford Crystal manufacturing facility, located in downtown Waterford, melts down over 750 tons of crystal and produces over 45,000 pieces each year, using traditional methods. Since its opening in June 2010, over one million people have visited the Retail Store and enjoyed guided factory tours of the manufacturing processes.
Still awake? Hey, 235 years of history in less than 400 words ain’t bad. But this next bit should be more interesting, it has pretty pictures. (Click on any of them for a closer look.)
In the history section, I mentioned a fellow named Miroslav Havel, and the fact he was versed in several glass disciplines. When it comes to crystal, these are the ones that count: glassblowing, cutting, sculpting, and engraving.
I have to admit, before the tour, when thinking of fancy glass crystal, glass blowing was not something I would have considered. But some crystal designs come in bowl or vase form, so why not? What I saw of the discipline looks like any other glass blowing studio I’ve ever been in (including my sister’s). I assume they’re blowing the glass thicker than the typical studio so they can carve on it, and of course there’s the lead component that would make it heavier. They don’t seem to use color as much, and will use molds for specific shapes and patterns.
In any case, it’s not a trivial skill. You should see the misshapen glasses I created when my sister tried to walk me through it. (Or maybe you shouldn’t.)
Ever wonder how those fancy patterns make it into glass? It’s not all automated or cast. Sometimes there’s an artisan behind it, creating a series of cuts, each just the right length and right depth.
Nothing to it. All it takes are strong, steady hands, a precise idea of the desired pattern, the ability to “see” the result before you cut then cut what you “see”, patience, and NO MISTAKES. Anybody could do it, right?
Glass sculpture will often start with one or more solid blocks of glass. The block may be cut into smaller blocks, each of which is carved and polished, much like sculpting in marble. Some pieces may be a straight up sculpture, others may be composites of many smaller pieces, carefully sized and fitted together.
Engraving is a more freehand method of cutting a design into glass. It can use drills with a selection of bits that would make your dentist jealous, or sandblasting.
Here, a pattern was laid out on paper then transferred to a bowl, where it was used as a template to ensure all the subsequent cuts occur in the correct place. You’ve heard of death from a thousand cuts? For these pieces, it’s life from a thousand cuts.
Each of these disciplines is a unique skill, and the practitioners, for the most part, specialize in just their one discipline. Achieving even journeyman status takes four years of training for a skill, and mastery closer to eight. You can see how polymaths like Miroslav Havel could be so rare.
And now for something completely different.
Let’s visit Veðrafjǫrðr. (Bonus points to anyone who can pronounce that. I scored zero.) Veðrafjǫrðr, or the more readable Vadrarfjordr, is the original name for Waterford. And who hung those monikers on it?
Ask the average guy on the street about what the Vikings were up to in Ireland and he’d probably give you a funny look – as if you had horns growing out the side of your head.
And no, the Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets. That’s a myth, perpetuated by the headgear of the fat lady singing in a Wagnerian opera, or possibly by the horns painted on the side of the helmets of a certain Minnesota football team.
It may be possible that the Vikings were described as horned devils by some. They did have a reputation for raiding and looting Irish monasteries – that’s not likely to gain a favorable description by the Irish monks.
It would take only a little exaggeration to describe their swords.
(Thanks to Inese over at Making Memories for the heads up on this sword and some of the Viking history in Waterford. Our tour guide didn’t mention the sword.)
In any case, the Vikings established a settlement near Waterford in 853, but were driven out in 902. In 914 they were back, and built and named what would become Ireland’s first city. Prior to that, Ireland was rural, with small settlements here and there, often centered around monasteries.
The Vikings and the Irish somewhat coexisted and somewhat had power struggles for the next couple hundred years. Eventually, a deposed Irish king made a deal with Norman mercenaries, and after the siege of Waterford in 1170 the Normans took de facto control.
But none of this suggests what the Vikings and Waterford Crystal have in common, apart from a location.
While the Vikings were driven from power, it’s important to remember they lived in the area for hundreds of years, likely hooking up both with other Vikings and the locals to establish families. The Viking DNA is still alive and well in Waterford.
And some of those contemporaries with Viking DNA are likely creating works of art at Waterford Crystal.
Ergo, Crystal Vikings.