England’s “Crystal Mile” can be a dazzling delight or a conundrum of choices.
In the city of Stourbridge, a few miles west of Birmingham, more than a dozen crystal factories, most within walking distance of one another, produce twenty to thirty crystal products each.
Approaching these drab brick buildings is no delight, but once inside, the brightly-lit showrooms sparkle with diamond-like beauty. Making a decision about which goblet, pitcher, tumbler or decanter to buy becomes difficult since almost everything is marked down to less than half price because most of the items are (barely discernable) seconds. It’s a delicious dilemma of too many options.
Located about 90 miles northeast of London, this town is haven to some of the best crystal England has to offer: Royal Doulton, Royal Brierley and Stuart are the largest manufacturers. Numerous other smaller crystal makers also compete very well here: Jaylynne, Tudor, Harlequin, Staffordshire, Kinver, Diamond and Dennis Hall Crystal.
The larger factories have outlet stores on the premises with dozens of their crystal lines on display while the smaller factories usually have a room set aside for display and sales.
But whatever the size of the shop, the variety of prices and products is broad, ranging from expensive ‘firsts’ to very economical ‘seconds’. Comparing the difference at Stuart Crystal, a first line Hamilton water goblet sells for $40; the same goblet in the seconds section can be had for $16.80.
Another big saving is found at Royal Brierley Crystal where a Stirling model goblet regularly goes for $50.40, but as a discounted second on special sale it’s available for only $21.44. Other wine and water goblets are as low as ten to twelve dollars.
An Old Tradition
Crystal products have been made in this area for almost 400 years when French glassmakers came over from Lorraine and Normandy. The main products then were window glass and bottles. When leaded glass was discovered in the 1700’s, the ornamental table crystal industry became a significant part of the Stourbridge countryside, which was rich in coal for firing the furnaces.
The craft reached its artistic peak in the 1800’s when many new designers and techniques created the cut, etched and colored crystal that became popular worldwide. Today skilled craftsmen continue in the same tradition of hand cutting the crystal using countless designs.
Simon Gidden is one of the cutters for Stuart whose work desk is in the outlet store. Visitors can watch as he engraves special names or dates on commemorative goblets or vases–as he has done for 19 years. One of the most popular designs, he said, is the fan-and-diamond cut which has many variations from one cutter to another. A crystal connoisseur can identify a particular goblet maker from the distinct variation of this one pattern.
In addition to the numerous crystal manufacturers, there are several cutting shops which buy ‘blanks’–uncut crystal goblets, vases, bowls, tumblers, candleholders or decanters–and then cut or sandblast or etch their particular designs into them.
Each of these cutting shops have their own retail shops, adding to the abundance of crystal for sale here. (I solved this dilemma by buying one matched water goblet and wine glass from each of the ten different shops I visited.) Each year, during the first week in September, the factories and the cutters participate in a large convocation called the Dudley Crystal Festival, in Stourbridge, where they display their wares and their skills with demonstrations and exhibitions.
Old Modern Factories
As beautiful as the crystal products are, trekking from one factory to another is a separate adventure. Some of the buildings are built of dark brick left over from the industrial revolution, looking rather dull and gloomy. Access to a few of them is via undistinguished alleyways.
The factory entrance at Jaylynne Crystal is so inconspicuous that I almost missed it. I followed the detailed map (available from the tourist office in the center of town) and found myself in a narrow driveway surrounded by old gloomy walls seven feet tall. Thinking I had made a wrong turn, I started to leave when I noticed a small handmade sign over a closed door. Not a soul around.
With no other choice (except for leaving), I ventured cautiously inside and found a second closed door. In the meager light I found a little note telling me to please ring the bell for assistance. A minute later, a secretary came walking over from her office to open the display room. When she flipped on the light switch, this dark cavern suddenly blazed with hundreds of beautiful crystal stemware pieces displayed around the room. Coming through such an inauspicious entrance, the sudden glittering spectacle seemed all the more spectacular.
The most interesting factory is the Stuart plant. In addition to the outlet store and the factory, there is a dramatic hundred-foot tall glass cone house built in 1790. Now a museum, this huge circular cone housed the circular furnaces around which glassmakers molded their work. During the last century dozens of these cones could be seen around Stourbridge, but now this cone is only one of four left in all of the United Kingdom. It was used up until the 1940’s when more modern and efficient furnaces were built.
In contrast to the large Stuart factory, Harlequin Crystal is located off the beaten path a mile away and consists of only one large workshop and a little office. Here is where Peter Walters, owner, designer and glassmaker practices his unusual craft of making colored crystal.
Almost all of the crystal to be seen in Stourbridge is ‘white glass’, but this small shop is a vestige of a tradition that is slowly dying, according to Walters. Because of the extra labor and skill involved in adding color, none of the larger factories have used color in their crystal since 1971. Most of the pieces Harlequin makes are blanks which are sold to cutters for finishing.
An Ancient Process
Walters described the delicate process of making colored crystal by carefully mixing the basic ingredients of silica, potash, potassium bicarbonate, lead oxide plus such “secret ingredients” as arsenic, cobalt, nickel, or barium in differing amounts for coloration. The best amount of lead is just 33% which strengthens the glass for cutting and lends brightness when polished. This is called ‘full lead’ crystal.
However, according to Walters, too much lead (37%) causes the glass to go green. Less lead, a minimum of 24%, can be used and this is called ‘lead crystal’. After mixing, the ingredients are melted down at 1400 degrees and then removed at just the right viscosity for the highly skilled task of shaping which involves from two to four craftsmen.
Standing in front of his furnace for a moment as he described this process, was almost suffocating as the air was sucked loudly into the mouth of fire. I believed everything he said and politely moved away from the heat. Before I left, Walters was adamant in his reassurance that there was no risk of lead contamination from drinking out of crystal glass.
A New Museum
The best overview of the crystal industry is gained by a visit to the Broadfield House Glass Museum just up the street from Stuart Glass. Opened in 1980, the museum houses hundreds of magnificent crystal and glass products and artistic works made over the past two hundred years. There is also an archive and library here as well as a program of special exhibitions of glassmaking.
Getting there: From London take the M40 motorway north to the M42 west to the M5 north. Follow the signs to Stourbridge. It is best to have all maps and guides ahead of time. The best guide map is called “The Crystal Trail” and can be ordered from the Broadfield House Museum, Compton Drive, Kingswinford West, Midlands DY6 9QA, England. Ask for their museum guide as well. The guide is also available at the library in the center of Stourbridge. For information on the annual Dudley Crystal Festival, contact the Economic Development Dept., 7 St. James Rd, Dudley, DY1 1HF, England. Factory tours are usually available daily upon request at the factory showrooms.
The journey is an adventure into a highly skilled world of art and artisans, and as well, a trip back in time to when guild craftsmen hand made their products with pride and mastery. No where else is this art more on display than Stourbridge in England.