Photography By Jim Graham

Arts & Antiques

The Holidays are the Perfect Time to Use Crystal

Whether vintage or new, it adds sophistication and elegance to any occasion.

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Decades ago, before drinking wine every day caught on with many Americans—and before Riedel became synonymous with what we drank it from—I was a lowly writing instructor and my wife was finishing her degree at Arizona State University. The winter holidays were approaching, and we decided we couldn’t afford tickets to fly east to visit family. Living in the Sonoran Desert, there was little prospect of a white Christmas. 

But there was this little shop in Scottsdale, Ariz., that looked, sounded and smelled like Christmas as soon as you opened the door. We bought our first two stems of small, delicate crystal—Orrefors white wine glasses— from its Danish owner, who had a unique philosophy. “Even if you can’t afford wine to drink in them, use them anyway—even if you just drink Kool Aid,” he said. “It will look beautiful.” 

I can’t remember what we drank that Christmas, but we did use the Orrefors. In time, we bought a fuller set. By today’s standards, they’re no longer practical for entertaining thanks to their small sizes. Still, we bring them out every year to toast the holiday season. 

While many types of glass are referred to as crystal, true crystal contains lead. Englishman George Ravenscroft discovered the process in 1674, finding that crystal glass could be made thinner, was more durable and had clearer, more reflective qualities than typical potash or flint glass. 

Ireland quickly became a hotbed for handmade crystal. With a growing merchant class in the 17th century, the ancestors of modern chandeliers were often made of cut glass from places such as Bohemia and Murano in the Venetian archipelago. Candles—and later whale oil—were the original sources of illumination. Tin shields were employed to reflect and therefore increase light from lamps and wall sconces, which was especially important in smaller homes. Many of those grand and simple chandeliers and lamps are still available today in antiques and collectibles shops, waiting to be hoisted above a beautiful table spread. 

“The criteria for effective light fixtures were that they should reflect and refract light into the dark areas of a room,” says Ann Wagner, a curator at Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Crystal also had the advantage of amplifying rays of sun in the mornings and afternoons, so much so that sometimes lighting needed to be toned down. Wagner explains that colored glass or painted globes served the reverse purpose of cutting down glare in lamps that were used for close-up reading or needlework. 

All of these—but especially more portable objects—have become popular heirloom pieces, passed down through generations. Bohemia glass was a source for many crystal flower vases. But those from Waterford and other Irish producers are valued for their durability. Today, they’re especially remarkable when filled with fresh-cut flowers. They also make a pretty statement when filled with foraged branches of holly and laurel and placed in dining rooms or entryways. 

Fittingly, Waterford makes Christmas ornaments, usually cast as reflective pendants, extending crystal into the living room. Swarovski also issues an annual decorative crystal, while others offer hollow bulbs with ornaments inside. The latter is also a popular purveyor of crystal jewelry and faceted earrings and brooches, which can wink back their light to the chandeliers, making for an extra-glittery holiday. 

Crystal decanters are another popular option for décor and gifts thanks to their strength, which makes them less likely to break. Beautiful old ones—especially of the English variety, where they were far more prevalent—can be found online and in fine antique shops. Wine can be consumed from them, but it can’t be stored in lead crystal since lead can eventually leach into the liquid (and stain the glass). 

Finding those unique pieces—crystal wine glasses, in particular—requires patience. Many heirloom stem glasses don’t survive as sets because of their fragility. Still, a new set makes for a perfect holiday or wedding gift, which, with care, will one day be an heirloom itself, adding glitter to gatherings for generations to come. 

The Hunt Winter 2019  Issue

This article was published in Arts & Antiques from the Winter 2019 issue.
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