I Can See Clearly Now
By Jessica Kosinski
Glassware is commonplace in today’s society. We all have drinking glasses, wine glasses, and even bowls or other dishes made of glass. Many glass pieces may look nice, but they are not particularly special or valuable. An exception is lead crystal. Lead crystal is specially made and often highly collectible. However, it can be difficult to distinguish it from standard glassware. Let’s take a peek at the history of lead crystal, what makes it valuable, and how to identify it.
What Lead Crystal Is
Lead crystal begins as molten glass. Lead oxide is added to the glass to make lead crystal, more commonly known simply as crystal. In some circles, it is also referred to as flint glass. The addition of lead oxide makes lead crystal glassware sparkle more than other glassware. For example, lead crystal with a 35 percent lead oxide content provides a 1.7 refraction index rating. The lead oxide also helps keep the crystal relatively strong and sturdy for its thickness.
Classifying Lead (or Lead-Free) Crystal
“Crystal” is sometimes used as a loose term for glassware. With the addition of lead oxide, the wine glass or other glass object is considered lead crystal; without it, the glass is referred to as lead-free crystal. A piece of glassware must include a minimum of 24 percent mineral content to be crystal in the United Kingdom, and now here in the United States. No such regulation existed in the United States originally, making it difficult to differentiate between what we now know as crystal and products bordering on regular glassware. That is why terms like “crystal” and “crystal glass” were frequently used in the United States to describe a wide range of glass pieces of varying strengths and conditions. Therefore, if you want to collect lead crystal, or even lead-free crystal, you must rely on other factors to determine which pieces are the best.
The Origins of Lead Crystal
England has been known for its glass manufacturers for centuries. In the 1500s, glassblowers from Venice came to London. With the full support of Queen Elizabeth I, all glassblowers, including the new Venetian residents of London, were encouraged to try to perfect their glassblowing processes. It took a bit more than a century, but finally a breakthrough was made.
In 1673 a man named George Ravenscroft opened a London glasshouse. He promptly applied for a patent for what he called “flint glass.” His discovery that lead added to glass made it higher quality quickly ignited an explosion of new glass making companies in England. While Ravenscroft was still alive, the practice of glass cutting also took shape. As a result, the flint glass (now known as lead crystal) glassware became more intricate than standard glassware. Artists soon honed their techniques and created beautiful cut patterns into many of their lead crystal products.
The 1700s saw a dramatic drop in glass makers operating factories in England. New tax laws made doing business there less lucrative. However, many of the manufacturers formerly operating there stayed in business by simply moving their factory work to Ireland, instead. One of the most famous brands of lead crystal, Waterford, was produced there. Waterford Glass House began production in 1783. Waterford was responsible for one of the earliest World’s Fairs, the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. However, that same year Waterford closed its doors in Ireland because the tax that forced glass makers out of England began to also apply in Ireland. After World War II, glass trends changed yet again. Waterford was reopened by several businessmen working together.
Other glass companies producing fine lead crystal also developed reputations for excellence over the years. One was Baccarat. It was formed in France in the 1800s. Another, still famous and still in business today is Swarovski. It was founded in the late 1800s by Daniel Swarovski. The company still produces high-quality products today. It is perhaps most well known for its jewelry. However, Swarovski also produces various fine crystal decorations and household items, including stemware.
Early Use of Lead Crystal
One reason lead crystal was popular almost immediately after it was invented is its ability to refract light. Well-to-do families loved to adorn their dining tables with lead crystal dinnerware and accessories. In those days, electric lights were not widely available. Tables were typically lit by candlelight. The lead crystal refracted and reflected the light from the candles. The effect was one that frequently awed dinner guests and became a clear sign of wealth.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Lead Crystal vs. Glass or Lead-Free Crystal
When purchasing lead crystal products for actual use or collectible value, keep in mind the advantages and disadvantages of each. The first disadvantage that may come to mind is the fact they contain lead, but in this case, lead crystal is completely safe for short uses. However, long-term storage, such as keeping alcohol in a lead crystal decanter for a week or more, is not recommended. Another disadvantage of lead crystal is it is porous, making it difficult to clean. True lead crystal is not dishwasher safe but some lead-free crystal pieces are safe to put in the dishwasher.
The main advantages of lead crystal are durability and stylistic flexibility. For example, a wine glass made with regular glass requires a wide rim to make it less prone to shattering. A lead crystal wine glass can be manufactured with a thin rim, making it look better and feel better when used.
How to Differentiate Between Glass and Lead Crystal
You may think the easiest way to differentiate between glass and lead crystal is to look at the price tag. That is partially correct. Lead crystal is typically quite a bit more expensive than regular glass. However, unscrupulous or misinformed sellers may market glass as lead crystal. The reverse is also true. If you know what to look for, you may find valuable lead crystal pieces in secondhand shops at deep discounts because sellers are unaware of what they are selling.
One way to identify crystal is to hold two pieces of similar size. For example, if you pick up two glasses in a shop and one is heavier than the other but they are the same general size, the heavier glass may be crystal. You can also often identify crystal by more rounded cuts or thinner construction compared to thicker or sharper-cut glass pieces. Additionally, holding a potential lead crystal object up to a light source can help you identify it for sure. The prismatic effect of lead crystal causes it to refract light in such a way that you should see a rainbow of colors – if the object truly is crystal.