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Debt Repaid: Touring the House of Waterford Crystal

Posted on September 21st, 2015

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Jim DuFresne just returned from a trip to Ireland and wrote this Trail Talk blog about touring the House of Waterford Crystal. What the …!!! Has the main blogger for MichiganTrailMaps.com, an avid fly fisherman, hiker and camper, gone soft on us? You read the blog and decide.

By Jim DuFresne

During a recent trip to Ireland with my wife I had to pay for the week I spent fly fishing in Colorado this summer. I had to spend a day looking at glasses, bowls, vases and dishware.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

“Your debt is due,” she said cheerfully and off we went to Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city that celebrated its 1100th anniversary last year. But it wasn’t medieval history my wife cared about. This was a pilgrimage to the House of Waterford Crystal to pay homage to world’s best-known maker of flutes, decanters and paper weights.

For my wife, and maybe women everywhere, it’s nothing short of a religious experience.

We began with the factory tour where I quickly learned that crystal is basically glass with lead in it.  Almost a third of every Waterford piece is lead which gives the crystal its sparkle, silvery white brilliance and hardness, leaded glass so hard that it can be cut and etched into intricate designs.

Waterford didn’t invent crystal, brothers George and William Penrose simply took it to an art form when they founded the Waterford Glass House in 1783.  But after 70 years the glass-making factory was closed due to a lack of capitalization and a new luxury tax imposed by London. In 1947, Waterford Crystal was re-established but since then its history has been riddled with bankruptcies and changes of owners, few of them Irish. Ironically, the pride of Ireland was owned by an American investment firm until last July when it was sold to Fiskars Corporation, a Finnish metalwork company.

Waterford Crystal glassware, the finest crystal in the world.

Waterford Crystal glassware, some of the finest crystal in the world.

What hasn’t changed is the way Waterford makes its crystal. The process still begins with workers carving wooden molds that are used to shape hand blown molten crystal. We saw a table full of them at the beginning of the tour; one had Justin Timberlake’s name on it and is used to mold the trophy the singer gives away every year at his charity golf tournament.

It’s the only thing Timberlake and I have in common. We’ve both been to the House of Waterford Crystal.

We then moved into the blowing room where we could see the red-hot molten crystal take shape and miraculously transformed into delicate glassware. Our tour guide said every piece is carefully examined and the imperfect ones aren’t sent to the Birch Run outlet mall, they’re destroyed. To prove her point she offered anybody an opportunity to break an imperfect piece of Waterford Crystal.

A worker blows molten crystal into a vase at House of Waterford.

A worker blows molten crystal into a vase at House of Waterford Crystal.

It was the high point of the tour for most of the husbands. We stepped up, donned a pair of safety glasses and then did something our wives would probably leave us if we ever did it at home. We picked up a piece of Waterford crystal – a large Margarita-looking glass – and threw it as hard as we could into a wooden box where it smashed into a thousand pieces.

It felt great.

The other highlight was learning about all the sport trophies Waterford Crystal is responsible for; among them Formula One’s French and German Grand Prix, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the Players Championship that offers the largest purse of any PGA tournament and the bat-and-ball trophy that was presented to Derek Jeter in his final game at Yankee Stadium last September.

Waterford also makes the trophies for the People’s Choice Awards and the 2,688 crystals that cover New Year’s Eve ball dropped every year in Times Square. But what really excited most of the husbands was the trophy for college football’s 2012 BCS National Championship. Waterford made several of them and it’s a good thing they did. Alabama won it that year and during the post-game celebration it slipped out of the hands of a player’s father. Like that large Margarita glass, it broke into a thousand pieces.

Jim DuFresne holds up the BCS College Football trophy.

Jim DuFresne holds up the BCS College Football trophy. Is he practicing for when Michigan State wins the national championship?

The company immediately sent the Crimson Tide another crystal football but still had one leftover for the tour. When this loyal Spartan held it over his head as if Michigan State had just won the gridiron championship it felt great. Take that Nick Saban.

The tour ended with us passing directly from the factory into the world’s largest shop of Waterford Crystal. There was so much sparkle and light it was like entering the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

The wives immediately scattered to every corner of the store. The men just huddled in the center, often in groups of three or four with their backs to each other as if they were part of Custer’s Last Stand, knowing they were about to get scalped.

I asked a saleswoman what they do when a clumsy husband breaks a piece of crystal in the store. “We sweep it up,” she said. Amazingly there’s no If-You-Break-It-You-Own-It policy at the House of Waterford.

After 10 minutes of looking at $400 crystal ice buckets (with tongs), martini glasses ($225 for a pair) and a Cliffs of Moher 13-inch vase (only $700), I realized I had broken into a cold sweat and was beginning to hyperventilate.

I left and went into the Crystal Café to calm my anxiety with a cup of tea. When the saleswoman appeared on her break I told her that my wife had been in the store for 45 minutes.

“Should I be worried?”

“Aww, no, not at all,” she said with a smile and that Irish twinkle in her eyes that you fall in love with the minute you land in the country. “She’s just getting warmed up.”

I may never be able to afford to go fly fishing again.


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