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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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What is lead crystal?

What is lead crystal?

Glass can only be called Crystal if it contains a minimum of 24% of lead oxide in the raw materials. Glass with over 30% is called full-lead crystal. Anything else is simply ‘glass’.

How do we begin to make lead crystal at Cumbria Crystal?

We start with creating our own secret Batch recipe. Batch is the technical term for the combination of different materials which give each glass its particular properties. It includes high quality silica sand; soda, manganese, lime and lead oxide. Due to small quantities required by Cumbria Crystal it is safer and more costs effective to have the raw materials mixed for us by a specialist company in Sweden. It arrives looking like an opaque granular breakfast cereal. It only becomes glassy after melting.

Once the batch is delivered to our factory it is melted in our two 500kg furnaces. Unlike many other glass factories we do not melt the raw materials quickly overnight. In order to achieve the highest quality crystal possible we deliberately melt the glass slowly over a whole weekend. The process is as follows; on a Friday evening any excess glass from the week’s production is ladled from the furnace and fritted in large vats of water. This will be recycled the following week. The temperature is raised overnight from normal working temperature of 1240C up to 1450C.

Throughout the whole day on the Saturday, every hour two scoops of Batch, and one of Cullet or Frit, is put into the furnace. We use a ratio of 70% batch, to 30% Cullet/Frit. Cullet is excess crystal or broken crystal from the previous week’s production. Frit is glass that has been quenched in cold water from hot. The thermal shock causes the glass to break into little pieces. Glass is one of the few materials which may be recycled indefinitely, provided it is not contaminated in any way. In fact the addition of 30% Cullet & frit actually helps improve the quality of glass.

Putting the materials in hourly helps the materials to melt more evenly and as such helps reduce the number of small bubbles that are likely to be trapped in the glass as a consequence of the melting process. The glass is held at 1450C throughout the Saturday into the evening and then progressively cooled over the remainder of the weekend so it is at 1250C by 8am on the Monday morning. During the slow cooling the glass effectively shrinks and by doing this slowly it ‘squeezes’ the glass shrinking any tiny bubbles that have failed to rise to the surface and dissipate.

During the blowing process our glassmakers regularly ‘rake’ the surface of the glass. This also helps to reduce the volume of bubbles and chord the glassmakers gather on the end of the blowing iron. This can help improve the glass but slows the speed of production and can also limit the amount of products that can be produced in a day as the glass needs time to rest if worked this way for too long.  Chord is a tiny but visible difference in the refractive index of the glass caused by the evaporation of materials from the surface, as the glass sits in the pot. This tiny difference changes the chemical composition of the glass slightly. When it is gathered onto the blowing iron, this surface glass becomes mixed with the glass immediately below it and on cooling the refractive difference can become visible as wavy swirl in the glass. This is generally acceptable as it is a sure indication of handmade glass, but if there is too much it will be rejected and recycled or sold as a factory second.

Cumbria Crystal specialises in the use traditional methods. It shuns automated blowing and cutting used by so many manufacturers and focusses only on what can be made exclusively by hand. This inevitably leads to a significantly smaller output and a higher price due to our smaller output compared to other glass factories, but represents the very pinnacle of artisan craftsmanship.

Did you know?

Glass is not a slow-moving liquid. It is a solid, albeit an odd one. It is called an amorphous solid because it lacks the ordered molecular structure of true solids, and yet its irregular structure is too rigid for it to qualify as a liquid. In fact, it would take a billion years for just a few of the atoms in a pane of glass to shift at all, so your crystal should last forever.

What does lead in the glass do?

Invented by the Englishman George Ravenscroft in 1674 lead in the glass reduces the melting temperature, increases the weight of glass and creates a beautiful clear finish. Being denser it refracts (bends) light more than other glasses so it sparkles better. The additional weight and shine is what people truly love about Cumbria Crystal. Being slightly softer than other glasses, decorative cutting can easily be incorporated into the designs, and containing lead it reacts extremely well with the hydrofluoric and sulphuric acid mix that is used to bring the glass to an incredibly high shine.  

Is lead crystal safe?

Once lead is chemically bonded into the glass through the melting process it is safe to use. 

How do you know it is hand-made lead crystal?

First of all, weight. Lead crystal is heavy compared with other glasses.

Tiny bubbles and chord as described previously, are far more common in furnaces in which the glass ‘sits’ stationary (only affected by thermal currents) in a crucible or large ceramic pot. Industrially bubbles and chord are avoided as the glass is kept in continuous motion, effectively stirring the glass. However, this requires factories requiring 5+tons of glass per day as opposed to 1 ton per week at Cumbria Crystal. By their very nature the large factories are mass producing glass which will also not be lead crystal.  They can generally remove these minor variations in glass, but by doing so indicate that the products are unlikely to be lead crystal or completely handmade.

At Cumbria Crystal we see tiny bubbles and small amounts of chord as the ‘stars in the galaxy’. The almost invisible elements that make crystal that little bit more interesting, tell the story of its origins and a classic indication of handmade craftsmanship.


Why purchase from Cumbria Crystal?

  • We make everything in the UK, unlike some fellow glass manufacturers who outsource abroad. We are extremely proud that every element of the production process happens under one roof in our small factory in the English Lake District and UNESCO World Heritage site. 
  • We have a small team of just 23 staff. A typical glass will take 10-14 days to produce from start to finish and pass through at least 9 pairs or artisans’ hands.
  • We only produce crystal with 24% of lead content.
  • We specialise in clear, hand crafted luxury, lead crystal. We do one thing, we do it very well & aspire to be the best in the world.
  • We operate as sustainably as possible and have staff welfare, recycling and sustainability initiatives in place.
  • We produce classic styles so they will last a lifetime and beyond.
  • We are the only remaining factory in the UK that still has the knowledge and capacity to produce luxury, hand-blown, cut and finished stem and barware.

Click here for more about the history of lead crystal.

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Employee Appreciation Day 2020

Friday 6th March is marked in calendars across many businesses as Employee Appreciation Day and so we wanted to take the opportunity to give you an insight into some key members of our tightly knit team here in our beautiful English Lake District, a UNESCO World Heritage site. All manufacturing takes place in one building where we have five glass-blowers (collectively with 105 years of experience) & three glass-cutters with 63 years experience. Our artisans are supported by a highly committed team of glass processing, marking, repair, quality control, packaging & dispatch staff.

Customers are supported by a Trade Sales agent and an in-house Customer Liaison Officer. Heather and Sian support visitors to our Factory Outlet shop & customers purchasing via the web.

The company is managed by CEO, Chris Blade, who is relies and is grateful for the professionalism of a truly dedicated management and support team – Finance Manager, Marketer, Bookkeeper, Operations Manager.

In total 23 staff exceptional people are required to produce each piece of your world class luxury hand-made crystal.

Bev Frankland is our Operations Manager and part of the company management team. Everyone who has commissioned work will have dealt with Bev at some point. There is not much about the project management & manufacture of hand blown and cut crystal that Bev has not dealt with since first starting as a 16 year old glass washer in 1990. Bev worked her way through the factory process department to becoming Head Quality Controller and even now she has a managerial role she is still regularly seen double checking quality and adjudicating grading decisions.

Steve McDougall has been blowing glass at Cumbria Crystal since 1989. Steve is our ‘Wine Servitor’ and is personally responsible for the creation of the stems and feet of every wine glass produced at the factory. This hugely skilled task uses traditional glass making processes brought from Stourbridge when the factory was founded in 1976. Cumbria Crystal is now one of the few places in the world where the particular ‘casting on’ technique that Steve excels at can still be seen. Steve enjoys working as part of a small team creating the highest quality hand-made crystal possible.

Jitka Wilcox has 27 years’ experience of diamond wheel glass cutting and has worked here since 2004. Jitka spent 3.5 years studying full time at a glass technology College studying glass cutting in the Czech Republic before graduating and working for a further 16 years in a Czech crystal factory. Jitka is able to translate the most demanding, complex and intricate designs into beautiful products. Cumbria Crystal is famous for the incredible cutting craftsmanship and it is worth noting that the precision and perfection of our glass belies the fact that every piece is completely hand-made. Jitka enjoys the challenge of the Grasmere cut but when the opportunity arises loves to cut more freestyle designs such as flowers and leaves.

The above are just a few of our highly skilled and talented artisans that produce the luxury crystal we are known for around the world. You can meet more of the team here. Cumbria Crystal would not be the prestigious brand it is today without all those that work here, so a huge thank you to all staff!