Czech vision built Waterford Crystal

Enda Kenny presenting a bowl of shamrock to President Obama during his first official visit to the White House as Taoiseach on St Patrick’s Day 2011. ROLLINGNEWS.IE/DFA

By Geoffrey Cobb

Ask Irish Americans to name an Irish product and Waterford Crystal will be near the top of most lists. Many Americans collect the beautiful Gaelic glass, handing down their sets of Waterford Crystal as treasured family heirlooms. This iconic Irish symbol, however, is not completely Irish. Immigrants to Ireland in fact, founded the firm and nearly a century after its original demise the company was resurrected by another group of immigrants. Today with anti-immigrant voices in Ireland and around the world clamoring an end to immigration, it is good to recall how Waterford Crystal became an enduring symbol of Irish craftsmanship thanks to immigrants to Ireland.

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The founders of Waterford Crystal, the Penrose brothers, were English Quakers who came to Ireland indirectly as a result of the American Revolution. To fund the British attempt to crush the American Revolution, the Crown imposed steep excise taxes on manufactured goods, one of which was crystal. Though the Penrose brothers had no expertise in glass manufacture themselves, they brought with them their crystal making genius, John Hill from Worcestershire, who recruited 70 other local craftsmen to emigrate to Ireland.

The Penrose brothers made a bold promise to produce crystal so fine that it could rival cut glass produced anywhere else in Europe and they proved to be as good as their word. Hill brought with him secrets in glass production and cutting that would make Waterford Crystal unique. The glass was both soft and warm to the touch, but also strong and durable. The deep ornamental cuts in the glass gave Waterford Crystal a luminosity no other glass in the world could match.

A cut-glass bowl made in 18th-century Waterford featured in a 19th-century edition of “Encyclopedia Britannica.”

The company thrived and one of its first foreign markets was the American colonies, especially in Philadelphia, which adorned many of its finest buildings with Waterford chandeliers. By 1851, Waterford Crystal was being universally hailed for its brilliance at the London Exhibition, but also in that year, the same British war excise tax, which had driven the Penrose brothers out of England, was extended to Ireland, destroying the firm’s profit margins and dooming it to bankruptcy. Waterford would not produce crystal again for almost a century until a different group of immigrants to Ireland would arrive with glass making skills.

Before the Second World War, many people considered Czechoslovakia to be the world leader in glass production and it had the only school in the world that taught crystal making skills. When Communism descended upon the Central European country established Czech crystal makers lost everything.

One of the ruined Czech crystal makers who escaped was Charles Bacik who had done business with a Dublin shop owner, Bernard Fitzpatrick. Bacik and Fitzpatrick teamed up in a partnership called Waterford Glass to try to resurrect the Penrose Brothers business. Much of Fitzpatrick’s inspiration for reviving the firm was on a visit to Philadelphia where he was smitten by the beauty of the Waterford chandeliers he saw there and determined to once again sell Irish crystal in America.

Bacik – the grandfather of Irish Labour Party Senator Ivana Bacik – and Fitzpatrick faced a daunting task for no one in Waterford had produced crystal for decades and there was no plant or machinery to make it there either.

Bacik, also lacking staff with crystal-making skills, summoned one of his top students from Prague, Miroslav Havel, to join him in Ireland. Bacik did not inform the young Czech of the fact that the firm was long defunct and that there was neither machinery nor staff to produce glass. Havel was so uninformed about Ireland that part of his attraction to the island was his belief that it had a tropical climate and abundant citrus trees.

Havel, though, achieved miracles in Waterford. Arriving speaking no English, he not only learned the language, but also supervised the creation and installation of glass cutting machinery, creating a new plant as well as teaching dozens of young local men the skills they would need to cut and polish crystal. Havel also visited the National Museum in Dublin where original specimens by the Penrose brothers survived. Havel studied them closely and measured them to perfectly recreate some the heirlooms for production in the new plant.

Eventually, Bacik lost his place as partner in the firm, but Havel stayed on for decades to become perhaps the world’s foremost master in the designing and production of crystal. Havel realized that the essence of the Waterford greatness was the unique deep cuts that refracted light to produce a sparkle no other crystal in the world could match and he created several crystal lines, which featured these iconic deep incisions.

By the 1970s, Waterford was king of the American market, raking in 10s of millions of dollars in sales and employing some three thousand people in Waterford at the largest glass works in the world. Waterford chandeliers graced Westminster Abbey and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the company created a number of the most famous sports trophies in the world.

Waterford Crystal would go on to acquire the Wedgwood and Royal Doulton brands, but a crisis would hit the company. In 2009, the main Waterford Crystal base was closed due to the insolvency of Waterford Wedgwood PLC and hundreds of workers lost their jobs. In June 2010, Waterford Crystal re-opened on the Mall in Waterford city centre, but with greatly reduced capacity. This new location is now home to a new manufacturing facility, although sadly most Waterford Crystal is now produced outside Ireland, ironically much of it is produced in Central Europe, the region from which Bacik and Havel fled to Ireland.

Although Waterford Crystal production is much reduced in Waterford, nevertheless, it is still a recognized symbol of Ireland. Each year the ball that is dropped at New Year’s in Times Square in New York is Waterford Crystal and the taoiseach of Ireland presents the president of the United States with a Waterford Bowl, but Waterford would not exist today had it not been for the vision of two Czech immigrants.

Geoffrey Cobb is the author of “The King of Greenpoint,” a biography of the 20th century Brooklyn politician Peter J. McGuinness.