I have always found crystal to be uniquely magical, with its intricate facets breaking light into little shards of the rainbow, but I had little concept of where or how it was made until recently.
As near as we can ascertain, crystal owes its origins to man’s desire to imitate nature, in essence; taking cues from naturally-occurring rock crystal, mankind developed glass into what we know as crystal today by adding metals to change the character of the glass. Lead was found to produce the best result, helping to create a product that is strong and durable (with a distinct “ring” to it when tapped), but pleasant to handle also, being smooth and warm to the touch. And, perhaps most importantly of all, lead crystal has a brilliant, clear, silvery appearance that responds wonderfully to cutting.
England is one of the great glass-making centres of the world, and the area of crystal is no exception. The tradition began with George Ravenscroft, who established a glasshouse in London in 1673, patenting a process for making “flint glass” (AKA lead crystal) shortly thereafter, upon finding that the addition of lead improved the quality of his glass. He continued experimenting with the exact chemical composition of his “flint glass,” eventually eliminating initial flaws and exacting the science.
Over time, the majority of crystal glass production in England moved to the Crystal Mile in Stourbridge, part of the Black Country’s industrial heartland, and it is here that Stuart Crystal’s story begins. In 1827, an eleven year old orphan by the name of Frederick Stuart was sent to work at the Redhouse Glassworks on the Crystal Mile, carrying on the glassmaking traditions of the generations before him. Young Stuart likely worked in what to us might look like something of an alien landscape, with great brick cones towering up to nearly 100 feet high, and coal-burning furnaces raging constantly, filling the air with soot.
Stuart, however, appears to have been undaunted by his environment, and by 1853 he, along with Richard Mills, Edward Webb, and Thomas Webb, formed the firm of Mills, Webb & Stuart. By the time the irascible Stuart retired at the remarkable age of 82, the firm had come to be dominated entirely by he and his sons, making it an entirely Stuart affair. Over the coming generations, these young men carried on the innovating and dominating spirit of their long-lived ancestor, until finally, in 1936, the business outgrew the iconic Red Cone, and moved to a factory next to it, thankfully never demolishing the local landmark (it was instead used as storage). Today, it serves as a museum, and is the best preserved out of only four such glassmaking cones left in the whole of the UK.
Stuart Crystal can be credited with some truly iconic contributions to the history of crystal, such as Stuart Medallion Cameo Glass (1887), and the Beaconsfield Pattern (1907), which is still used today.
Keeping pace with the times, Stuart Crystal also produced Art Nouveau vases and bowls adorned with trailed green decoration, and novelty cocktail sets featuring spiders, devils, and lucky symbols (some which now reside at the Broadfield House Glass Museum).
The principal designers who helped to shape the look of Stuart Crystal include Ludwig Kny (1918-1937), Reg Pierce (1937-39), and John Luxton (1949-1985), the latter of which moved the company into the modern era with his contemporary table service designs in the 1950s.
Stuart Crystal is also notable for supplying glass to shipping liners, including the Titanic, and a remarkable 22,000 items made for the Queen Mary in the mid 1930’s.
In 1995, the crystal-making firm was successfully bought out by the equally renowned Waterford Wedgwood company. One would have expected a bright future to develop out of the marriage of these two historic companies, but sadly, in 2001 the Stuart factory was closed forever, making the preservation of those Stuart Crystal pieces that remain a matter of great historical importance.