A Brief Guide to: Crystal Tableware
Blog by Debra Palmen
What precisely is crystal? It’s simple: to be crystal, glass must have at least 24% lead content. But why is it so much better than glass? Again, it’s simple:
- Crystal is much stronger than standard glass, which means crystal wine and water glasses are much thinner than standard glasses. And it’s true, a thin crystal rim feels so much better to use. Better “mouth feel” is what wine aficionados say.
- Crystal’s strength means it lasts longer than standard glass and is much harder to scratch. No crystal will survive seriously rough handling, but it withstands robust treatment far better than standard glass.
- Crystal looks better than standard glass. That’s because it’s more transparent. This sounds odd because clear glass is transparent, right? Wrong. Okay, it’s not entirely wrong. Clear glass is clear. But crystal is clearer. It refracts light far better than glass, it sparkles, it’s glossier. Wine’s true colour is better appreciated in crystal. The best way to test this assertion is to pour your wine into a crystal glass and a standard glass – you’ll definitely see the difference for yourself.
Having established that crystal is more desirable than glass, the question becomes, how can we tell the difference? That’s more difficult to answer, but try this:
- The easiest method is to look for a manufacturer’s sticker or acid stamp. For example, Waterford crystal had a gold sticker with its name and a green seahorse logo. But stickers are often removed, so your next step is to hold the piece up to the light and examine the bottom and around the base. It will have ‘Waterford’ etched on it. That’s called an acid stamp. If they made the piece after 2000, the acid stamp might say Waterford but might simply be a seahorse. Most leading brands of crystal have either a sticker and/or acid stamp.
- Not finding a brand name doesn’t mean the piece you’re considering isn’t crystal. So again, hold it up to the light. Crystal has a slight silvery-purplish hue and casts a small rainbow prism. Try it with a standard piece of glass and you’ll see no prisms. If you have a black light (also called ultra-violet light), crystal will show a very slight purple-blue tint, while standard glass shows nothing. Many discount stores sell small black lights.
- Select a piece of glass the same size as your maybe-crystal piece. Consider their weights. If your piece is crystal, it will always be heavier than glass of the same size. The lead content will be apparent.
- Less reliable methods include licking your finger and running it around the rim of your bowl or glass. Apparently, if it makes a gentle, high-pitched hum, it’s crystal. Glass makes no sound. Also, if you gently tap the rim and hear a high-pitched ping, it’s crystal, whereas glass will produce a dull thud. And look, if you’re desperate, if no other technique has produced definitive results, it doesn’t hurt to try these methods. But other than covering your pieces with spit and making you look a little pretentious, they’re not likely to produce useful information.
If you’ve identified your items as crystal, that’s great news. Now you need to know how to care for them properly. It’s easy:
- The first step is sensible storage. Don’t cram your pieces into a cupboard where they’ll rub against and possibly chip each other.
- Unlike glass, crystal is porous and can be stained. If yours is stained, a simple rinse under warm water will clean it. If there is discolouration, soak your piece for a few minutes in diluted vinegar to restore its brilliance.
- Polish your crystal with an absorbent cotton cloth. Cotton is best because it has no aroma and doesn’t leave smears or residue.
Many firms have made crystal tableware over the years. Among the greatest are:
Baccarat – Founded in the 1700s, it’s now the world’s oldest crystal tableware producer. Many collectors consider it to be the absolute best. Czar Nicholas II was a big fan.
Daum – This firm is best known for its beautiful Art Nouveau creations. Many people know its vases and decorative pieces, but it also made fabulous tableware.
Lalique – Most people have heard of this firm’s sensuous nudes and naturalistic flowers and insects on its bowls, vases and perfume bottles. They’re gorgeous and enormously expensive. But Lalique also created beautiful tableware that’s used by some of the best 5-star hotels.
Stuart – This firm created its first crystal tableware in the late 1880s but only started acid stamping its name in 1924. It designed tableware for the Titanic, and some of those pieces have now been reproduced. Remember, you can only ever buy reproductions because the originals are at the bottom of the Atlantic. Waterford Wedgwood purchased Stuart in 1995, and Stuart closed entirely in 2001. With no more being produced, its vintage pieces are only appreciating in value.
Tiffany – People think of Tiffany as producing spectacular jewellery presented in its iconic blue boxes, but it also offers elegant glasses, bowls and other tableware. Most of us can’t afford these pieces, but you can always dream.
Waterford – Established in Ireland in 1783, Waterford is among the most prestigious crystal brands in the world. Its stemware (glasses of all shapes and sizes) is keenly sought by collectors. The company was purchased in 2015 and is now part of the Wedgwood and Royal Doulton family.
Webb Corbett – Considered one of the best English lead-crystal names, this firm was founded in 1897 as Thomas Webb & Corbett, and changed its name to Webb Corbett in 1953. It’s most famous for its superior tableware and vases. Royal Doulton took over the firm in 1986.
This is a brief guide, but hopefully it will help you make good choices to start or add to your collection. The great thing about amassing high-quality crystal tableware is that it’s beautiful and functional. You can’t ask for more than that.