It’s no secret: the traditional handcrafts of the world have had a hard time of it. While individual makers and artisans have struggled, so have the larger enterprises that produced the work. In some sense, they don’t have the advantages that individual makers have: the ability to scale work up or down, or quickly shift gears on product mix. Employees are expensive. Factories are fixed costs. Production lines take a long while to shift.
As a result, the great potteries in Stoke on Trent in England have been decimated. The textile industry in the US is a dwindling shadow of its former self. The knitwear industry in Scotland was suffering the same fate until designers woke up to the fact that they’d need to invest if they wanted great materials with which to create their designs. But even then, the resurgence hasn’t been across the board, and there’s concern over an aging workforce.
And so it was going with crystal making in Ireland.
Waterford, the venerable crystal making house founded in 1783, had done well into the 1980s. But in 2009, it was forced to go into receivership. Production was shifted to Germany and Eastern Europe. And the factory itself was mostly kept alive for retail and the benefit of tourists, with a small production crew for special orders. Seemingly overnight, craft skills went away.
Then, along came a woman determined to stop that decline. Anike Tyrrell, the CEO of the Waterford County Enterprise Board, decided that the time was right to start a new crystal brand in Waterford, one she called J. HILL’s Standard. In fact, in starting up the brand, time was of the essence. Tyrrel noted recently, “There’s a short window of time in which the old glassworkers will be able to pass on their skills.”
J HILL’s Standard aims to revive the crystal tradition in Waterford by collaborating with contemporary designers to create new collections that appeal to the more modern, design conscious consumer.
And the result (at least at the debut), is pretty wonderful. Yes, it’s still made in County Waterford in the south of Ireland, but it’s nothing like your grandmother’s “traditional” Waterford.
County Waterford had a tradition going back to the late 1700’s of lead crystal production. The craftsmen came from Bohemia at the start of the century, and as they used up the lumber from the forests to fuel the glass furnaces, they moved slowly westwards. For historical reasons, including the deep sea sheltered port of Waterford, a group of them settled in the Waterford area and started the crystal industry.
John Hill, on whose name the brand is based, came from Bohemia to Waterford in 1783, bringing with him a unique formula for lead crystal and improved production techniques. After he was accused of having an affair with Lady Penrose, wife of one of the owners, he left Waterford, but luckily for us, also left his formula behind.
The brand debuted at Milan’s Salone del Mobile earlier this year. It features collections of crystal tumblers, stems, and decanters from Italian-born, London-based designer Martino Gamper and the Netherlands’ Scholten & Baijings.
But it wasn’t an easy road to get there. Says Christopher Kelly of J. HILL’s Standard, “Sadly from the beginning it was an uphill battle. There is no remaining independent mould maker left in the country. We located a 300-year-old fallen beech tree on Cappoquin Estate, converted my metal lathe to a timber one, bought the turning tools and started making the prototype moulds ourselves. It was painstaking and required lots of patience, and probably best described as an education.
“We also failed to find anybody able to blow lead crystal for us, and this in a county which not too long ago employed 3,300 people in the glass industry. Thus, in a quirky twist of fate, we have gone back to Bohemia to have the glass blown by mouth.”
All pieces of J. HILL’s Standard glass come back to Ireland to be hand cut by master craftsmen, led by Walter Walsh and Frankie Power, who between them have over a century of experience in hand-cutting crystal.
Scholten & Baijings’ Elements series is modern with highly geometric carving and opaque tones. The patterns include alternate transparent and translucent horizontal bands, separated by cuts, and stripes of frosting in a range of opacities. There’s absolutely nothing fussy or prissy about these designs. And each glass in the Elements series has a different design so that customers can create their own collection of glasses.
Gamper’s crystal is cut with playful patterns, which together have an ethereal feel. Gamper worked directly with the crystal, removing the material in a manner that felt instinctive, free, and pleasing. The result is a series of three distinctive cuts that appear across a family of functional tableware.
With only a few lead crystal glass blowers and only a handful of crystal cutters left in Ireland, this heritage rich industry is in almost terminal decline. J HILL’s Standard is also founding a Crystal Academy in Waterford to offer apprenticeships in both glass blowing and glass cutting to ensure the survival of Waterford’s world renowned crystal tradition.
J HILL’s Standard
While any new venture is a risky one, we hope this one and others like it (such as 1882 Ltd in England), not only survive, but thrive.
J HILL’s Standard