Crystal Gazing By Charlotte Abrahams

Charlotte Abrahams pays a visit to glass-maker Cumbria Crystal….

Downton Abbey table set with Grasmere Cumbria Crystal. (Image courtesy of Cumbria Crystal)

An unprepossessing warehouse in a Cumbrian market town may sound an unlikely location for a crystal factory – after all, Stourbridge in the West Midlands is the traditional English home of its manufacture – but this outsized shed on the edge of Ulverston is in fact home to Cumbria Crystal, the UK’s last remaining producer of the hand-made, full lead, English variety.

‘Full lead crystal must contain 30 per cent lead,’ explains the company’s managing and creative director Katy Holford. ‘It does have its problems – it’s more likely to develop small faults, for example, which is why so many companies have now switched to the more forgiving “lead crystal,” but full lead crystal cuts very well, has real weight and sparkles like nothing else.’ (Cutting was originally developed as a way of removing the faults and imperfections; ‘lead crystal’ contains just 24 per cent lead.)

These qualities have not been lost on the people responsible for equipping the glass cabinets of Britain’s embassies around the world or the prop buyers for ITV’s hit costume drama Downton Abbey (the embassies use the Jacobean-inspired Helvellyn collection, while the dining tables of Downton were set with Grasmere). But despite such impressive contracts, when Holford – creative director since 2009 – became Managing Director on 1st December 2010, she found herself at the head of a company that was struggling for survival. ‘Every aspect of the company had been cut to the bone,’ she says. ‘Technical breakdowns were affecting the quality of the glass, there had been no new designs for 20 years and the business model was totally outdated.’

Holford was understandably nervous about accepting the top job at a company with such a bleak CV, but she is passionate about both the importance of making British goods in Britain and the need to keep traditional crafts skills alive. ‘I have been out to the Far East and seen how terrible the working conditions are,’ she says, ‘and I didn’t want to be part of that cycle – but more than anything, I took job because I want to keep this community working and keep the skills of these craftspeople in this country.’

The last couple of years have been tough. As Holford says, ‘Making handcrafted production profitable is a very difficult thing to do,’ but things are now looking much rosier. Turnover was up 40 per cent in 2011 and 80 per cent in the first six months of this year. New contracts include one for producing cut crystal light bulbs for young British designer Lee Broom, while Holford’s Six Stemware collection, a set of glasses each sporting a different cut pattern and designed to be mixed and mis-matched, is selling like hot cakes at London department store Liberty (from £76 a tumbler).

Cumbria Crystal Six Collection. (Image courtesy of Cumbria Crystal)

The work force – a small team of 16 full-timers, including four glassmakers, two cutters and an engraver – seem happy. The day I visited, there was a tangible pride on the factory floor, not simply because Cumbria Crystal is still here, but because it is still producing top quality full lead crystal.

Making crystal glassware of this quality is a highly skilled business. Protected from the glare of the furnaces by a pair of safety goggles, I watched as Andrew Round and Nick Brine made a simple water jug. First, Round gathered molten glass from the furnace on a four foot long pole, then mouth-blew it into shape using a cast iron mould. The jug formed, Brine gathered more molten glass for the handle, precisely pinpointing the correct position, then moulding the handle into shape using an implement resembling a pair of giant tweezers. They worked swiftly and in a matter of minutes the raw jug was ready for its overnight stay in the Lehr (a temperature-controlled kiln designed to take the stress out of newly-formed crystal as it cools down very slowly through the night).

It was all very impressive and hot (the glass is heated to a temperature of 1150° Celsius), but the real magic of Cumbria Crystal happens in the cutting area. The two cutters, Robert Thomson and Jitka Wilcox, do use the newer, faster diamond cutters loved by most manufacturers of cut glass, but most of the crystal made here is still cut using the traditional two-stage process of roughing and smoothing. ‘The first cut is done on a carborundum wheel and then smoothed on a sandstone wheel,’ explains Holford. ‘Not many people use this technique anymore, because it’s so time-consuming, but you just can’t get the same precision, sharpness and quality with a machine.’

Cumbria Crystal Bulb Collection. (Image courtesy of Cumbria Crystal)

Quality is what Cumbria Crystal is all about. As the company discovered to its cost, it simply cannot compete in the price-driven mid-market, so it must concentrate on the luxury end, where perfection and provenance are more important than price. And the strategy is working. As well as that high-status contract with Broom, in the last couple of years, Cumbria Crystal has also secured valuable commissions to make perfume bottles for the Royal Wedding and the Diamond Jubilee, and is currently in discussions with a leading florist and a whisky company. ‘There does seem to be more of a demand for high quality, more decorative glass,’ Holford says, ‘and we need to exploit that. So I am trying to combine our traditional heritage with designs that suit 21st century lifestyles.’ These include the new Six Gift collection, a range of six vases (from £48, for the smallest, 8 centimetres high): each is patterned with a different cut, to complement last year’s best-selling Six Stemware collection.

The upturn in business is of course very welcome, but it has brought its own problems. More orders have meant more demand on the furnaces, and the two old ones currently in use are simply not up to the job. ‘The last two years have been a step-by-step process of renewal,’ explains Holford, ‘but now we need new furnaces so that we can build capacity. We’re currently trying to raise the necessary finance.’

So far, this has proved a rather frustrating experience, and the company has had to turn down a lucrative commercial order because Holford couldn’t guarantee that it would be completed in time, but everyone is optimistic that they will find the funds. Meanwhile, Holford continues to make plans (there is talk of an English wine range, of the brand moving into the US, and of potential projects with the Middle East), pushing forward with her other mission, which is to educate consumers about the joys of hand-made, contemporary cut crystal.

‘Using good quality, full lead, cut crystal glass really does enhance the pleasure of drinking and makes wine taste better,’ she says. ‘You can’t put our glasses in the dishwasher, but that’s a small price to pay for something that sparkles in the light and makes such a beautiful sound when you clink it.’

I finished my trip to Cumbria Crystal in the factory shop (a must-stop destination next time you’re in the Lake District), and I have to say that, dazzled by the reflections bouncing off the glassware and amazed by the weight of these pieces, I returned home suddenly dissatisfied with my shelves of non-glinting, lightweight glass.

Cumbria Crystal, Oubas Hill, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7LB
Tel: (01229) 584400

Charlotte Abrahams’ work originally published in Crafts Magazine,
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