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A brief history of the last 40 years of UK glass manufacturing

Founded in 1976, Cumbria Crystal has made its mark by surviving as the last luxury, handcrafted crystal maker in the UK and by aspiring to similar quality standards to some of the most famous & expensive global brands such as Baccarat, St Louis, Lalique and Moser.

We are often asked what happened to the English crystal industry – and the glass industry in general – and why it has changed so dramatically in less than 50 years. Today we will try to briefly discuss, not just the crystal industry, but some of the other glass industries in the UK. A detailed lecture on this subject was recently delivered by David Dalton, Chief Executive of British Glass, who we would like to thank for providing data for this article.

1980

In 1980 there were around 50 sites producing glass for the Glass Container industry. This would have included items such as milk bottles and wine bottles, employing around 8000 workers in the manufacturing process alone and generating a turnover of at least £440M per year.

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

The Flat Glass industry was dominated by Pilkington, based in St. Helens, Liverpool. Sir Alastair Pilkington invented the Float-Glass process between 1953-57 and the company enjoyed a monopoly on this process for many years both in the UK and globally. Float glass will be familiar to you as the type of glass used in large modern windows. It was called Float Glass as it is made by literally ‘floating’ the glass over a lake of molten tin as it is slowly drawn from the furnace. The glass floated on the tin as it spread and flattened. The heat from the tin simultaneously polished the underside of the glass as the flames above polished the top surface. Prior to this glass had to be ground and polished on one of the surfaces, initially by hand & later by machine, meaning large flat sheets of glass were incredibly difficult to make and extraordinarily expensive.  Our modern cities and skyscrapers would not look the way they do today without float glass.

Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

The Crystal Glass industry – the category in which Cumbria Crystal sits – was centred in Stourbridge (West Midlands) which was the global epi-centre of lead crystal production (domestic glass and tableware). Lead crystal, sometimes called flint glass, was invented by Englishman George Ravenscroft in 1673 and England lead the way in the world for crystal production. Prior to 1980 there had been in the region of 500 crystal manufacturing companies! In 1980, many of the most famous companies such as Waterford, Whitefriars, Thomas Webb, Stuart Crystal, Edinburgh Crystal, Royal Doulton and Royal Brierly still existed. The vast majority of these closed in the subsequent years.

In 1980, Cumbria Crystal was only 4 years old. Founded by the Cavendish family to bring glass blowing to the Lake District, it recruited glass blowers from Stourbridge and specialised in the production of clear, hand blown, hand-cut full-lead (30%) crystal tableware in a factory in Ulverston.

2000

By 2000 Governments were becoming more aware of the environmental damage industry in general was doing to the planet and began to take serious action to fight climate change. The glass industry was taxed for emissions and the use of Carbon Migration schemes became a reality. Many manufacturers decamped production abroad to save paying high taxes in the EU. This, compounded by two recessions, a huge growth in the use of plastics for packaging and wrapping for supermarkets, a depression in the automotive sector and a general lack of investment meant many UK businesses closed.

At this point there were only a handful of Crystal Glass manufacturers remaining in the UK. The above, compounded by improving Health & Safety standards, increasingly high energy & raw material costs, a change in the gift giving culture, a lack of new designs and failure to train apprentices put the final nail in the coffin for most UK crystal manufacturers.

Cumbria Crystal’s focus on high quality, balanced with a pricing structure that avoided competing with price orientated international manufacturers in Eastern Europe, meant it avoided some of the financial race to the bottom.


2020

Around 6000 people are still directly employed in industrial glass production in the UK and the sector turns over £3B annually. This is a significant sized industry despite there being only 6 glass container manufacturers left. In the Flat Glass industry Pilkington now has only two sites, with a single furnace each, and has three contenders.

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

A few brand names still survive in the crystal tableware market. For example Waterford Crystal – which was a huge marketing phenomenon in the 70’s and 80’s – albeit in a different format. Post 9/11, travel by US citizens to Ireland almost ceased & sales went through the floor. The company was sold and most production is now being made in Slovakia and Czech Republic. They still have an impressive visitor centre. Royal Brierly and Caithness are now owned by Dartington. Caithness no longer produces tableware but specialises in beautiful decorative paperweights.

All is not doom and gloom for the future of glass production in the UK though. TV programmes and documentaries, such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, have raised public awareness of the downside of plastic (sea pollution, difficult to recycle, single use) and are beginning to change attitudes and behaviours. Investment and research into new technologies for melting glass, especially using electricity and/or hydrogen, are being supported actively by the government through the establishment of organisations such as Glass Futures. This initiative connects the glass industry and academia to create an industry cluster to ensure increased productivity and sustainability in the sector.

Glass plays an important role as one of the few materials which can be infinitely recycled; as long as it is not contaminated. Recycling is becoming more efficient and today a typical green wine bottle is 90% recycled.
The government plan is that glass making will become carbon neutral by 2035, meaning that plastic is out and glass will be back.

Cumbria Crystal’s survival today is primarily due to its refusal to squeeze standards and focus on the ‘art form’. A crystal decanter or goblet is not just a piece of glass, it is the product of at least 9 skilled artisans working together using heritage skills honed over decades. Typically a piece of crystal takes 10 days to convert from sand to finished product. Every piece is a work of Art. Today Cumbria Crystal is smaller than in was in the 80’s, with only 23 staff, but it weathered the storms, holds an envious global reputation for quality and is planning for growth.

What does this mean for Cumbria Crystal?

Cumbria Crystal, as the only luxury, handcrafted crystal maker left in the UK is in a strong position to capitalise on its reputation. Investment is being sought to improve e-commerce routes to market and extend its customer base internationally. In time, more efficient furnaces will be required and capacity will be increased. Our collaborations – such as those with Bentley Motors – continue and we will continue to focus on offering the very best luxury crystal, but with more contemporary collections added to the classic so there is something for everyone.

Recent collaboration with Bentley Motors

We are extremely proud with what we have achieved in an industry that has been hit so hard by economical, environmental and cultural changes:

  •  We are 100% British owned.
  •  Each step of the process takes place by hand, from blowing to marking to cutting.
  •  Everything is crafted in our small factory in the Lake District. Nothing is outsourced.
  •  We work with the Royal College of Art to provide educational opportunities and collaborations.
  •  We are one of the best value crystal businesses within the luxury market.
  •  We offer free access to the factory to view glass blowing and diamond wheel cutting.
  •  We provide a wide variety of collections.
  • Our products are regularly chosen for use on the big screen (Downton Abbey, James Bond).
  • Our more contemporary collections are gifted for all special occasions.
  • We are chosen by British Embassies for formal dining globally.
  • We supply to the most discerning clients & those who demand the ‘best of the best’.
  • We achieve all of this as a team of less than 30, from the CEO to the glass marker, and the accountant to retail assistant.

We look forward to serving you soon www.cumbriacrystal.com

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