Monday, December 29, 2008

New York ball could be Waterford Crystal’s last flourish

Workers in New York are putting the final touches to a dazzling Waterford crystal ball which will descend into Times Square on New Years Eve. The ball is over three and a half metres in diameter, weighs over five thousand kilos and is covered with 2,668 Waterford Crystal triangles. The massive new ball continues a Times Square new year tradition and will have a new permanent home on the roof of One Times Square. The $5 million project has taken a year to complete and engineers built an entire roof structure and reinforced the steel columns to cope with the ball’s weight. The ball was created at the crystal factory in Waterford and is a major marketing boost for the troubled glassware giant. God knows we need some joy coming into this new year," Waterford spokesman Peter Cheyney said. "That's the truth."

Cheyney’s relief for the New York project came on the same day as the announcement a US private equity fund was looking to buy out the company. Negotiators said the unnamed investor group were poised to take a controlling stake in struggling Irish crystal and ceramics manufacturer Waterford Wedgwood PLC for 600 million euros ($846 million). The company has until 2 January to make mounting loan payments or face the possible forced liquidation of assets. The date is the third postponement of loan repayment and there is now a race against time to save the company. Most of the glass is now manufactured in Eastern Europe with only the showrooms and a small operation left at its Waterford base.

If it happens, it will be the second time the industry will have gone under in glass's 230 year association with Waterford. While glass blowing dates back to techniques invented by the Phoenicians in the first century BC, it was relatively late arriving in Ireland. Before 1780 Irish glass was a pale imitation of the British product. England was influenced in the 16th century by Belgium which turn looked to the Italians. Antwerp was the chief glass making centre in northern Europe and attracted glass makers from Genoa and Venice. In 1571 Giacomo Verzelini came to London and was given sole royal licence to produce glass in the “thin fragile” Venetian style. In 1674 George Ravenscroft applied for a patent for a “particular sort of crystalline glass” made from high purity silica which was the forerunner of flint glass, also known as lead glass.

England developed its own lead glass style. German and Bohemian craftsmen brought their engraving skills to England in the peace and prosperity that followed the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. But in 1777 an excise tax to support the fight against the US war of Independence crippled the English and Scottish industry. In 1780 restrictions were lifted on Irish industry including manufacture of glass. Free trade in Ireland lasted until 1825. These 45 years were the great era of Irish glass, what glass historian Phelps Warren called “the Age of Exuberance”. The product was made in Dublin, Belfast and Cork, but it was the Waterford Glass House which quickly became pre-eminent.

The growth of Waterford’s glass industry coincided with a time of great prosperity for the city. Growth was fuelled by a newly improved mile-long Quay and its associated maritime industry which profited from provisions for the expanding Newfoundland fishing fleet. These opportunities were exploited by an emerging astute Quaker business community. One such Quaker family were the Penroses who initially made their money in ships' chandlery. In 1783 George Penrose and his nephew William (often erroneously assumed to be brothers) began glass manufacture with a £10,000 enterprise which employed 70 people to cut, blow and engrave glass.

A week before they opened for business, the Penroses placed an ad in the Dublin Evening Post on Saturday 4 October 1783 under the headline “Waterford Glass House.” The ad read: George and William Penrose having established an extensive Glass Manufacture in this city, their Friends and the Public may be supplied with all kinds of plain and cut Flint Glass useful and ornamental: they hope that when the Public know the low Terms they will be supplied at and consider the vast expense attending this weighty undertaking they will not take offence at their selling for Ready Money only. They are now ready to receive orders and intend opening their warehouse 10th of next month. Wholesale Dealers and Exporters will meet with proper Encouragement. September 22, 1783.”

Public relations aside, the key to the Penroses success was the employment of fellow Quaker, and master glassmaker, John Hill from Stourbridge, Worcestershire. Hill spent three years at Waterford and his knowledge of glass, chemistry, standards and quality and sense of design quickly established the brilliance of the Waterford product. In the early days, the factory obtained sand from nearby Woodstown strand. In later years they obtained high quality silica sand from the English port of King’s Lynn. But despite the quality and elegance of Hill's glass and the Penroses growing reputation, they struggled to make a profit. They sold the business in 1797 to the Gatchell family. Jonathan Gatchell turned it into a prosperous business. He used his connections and business acumen to expand the industry and gain an export foothold in America despite the negative effect of the 1800 Act of Union. He employed close to 200 people at the factory. But by 1826, heavy duties against crystal glass were setting back the industry. Conditions gradually worsened and by the middle of the century, the Irish glass industry was dead. Waterford’s factory shut down in 1851. Another hundred years would pass before glass would be made in the city again.

The citizens of Waterford never forgot the reputation and prestige Penrose glass had given the city and there were many attempts to restore the industry. The opportunity finally arose after World War II when refugee German, Czech and Italian glass cutters and artisans were enticed to Waterford to found a crystal factory. It began in Ballytruckle on a three acre lease. The first General Manager was the Czech immigrant Karel (Charles) Bacik and the chief designer was the Slovak Miroslav Havel. The two men (who both died recently) would devote the rest of their lives to Waterford and its crystal. In January 1948 a £15,000 development was mooted for the fast developing factory. Bacik and Havel trained up locals and by 1950 the factory settled on a new site at Johnstown with room for expansion. The plant employed 100 people and grew rapidly. It quickly reclaimed pride of place as Ireland’s foremost glassware company and was the great success of post-war Waterford industry. In the late 1960s production began at a 40 acre site in Kilbarry. The factory expanded three times and employed 2,000 people. In 1971 a second factory was built in Dungarvan. At the time, it was one of the largest handcraft industries in the world and its glass was unique in using the very highest lead content(thirty percent).

In 1986 Waterford Crystal took over the Wedgwood pottery group just as the winds of change were set to blow through the company. The late 1980s and 90s saw a slow but sure throttling of plant capacity and a steady stream of redundancies. In 2005, they closed the Dungarvan plant to consolidate its workforce in Waterford. Today much of the glass is produced more cheaply off-shore, ironically including the Czech Republic and Slovakia where many of the original designers hailed from. These shifts sharply reduced overhead costs but the company's crippling debts continued to mount. The falling dollar of much of the last decade badly hurt the company in its key US export market and its share price has been worthless for many months. Although the dollar has now bounced back, a combination of slow sales and the global credit crunch have put its financial future at risk and there have been two redundancy batches already this year. Unless the new mystery backers come to the party, Waterford Crystal could be set for another century of hibernation.

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