Daniel Swarovski and Austrian Crystal - Part 1
The beads most Americans known as Austrian cut crystals are among the most expensive and beautiful mass-produced bead on the market. The perfection of their material and workmanship create exceptionally attractive ornaments. Their production is closely associated with that of artificial stones for jewelry, commonly known as rhinestones. The story of these Austrian cut crystal beads is intertwined with the history of European beads in general. It begins centuries ago with European glassmakers attempting to duplicate the brilliance of diamonds or rock crystal in glass, and climaxes with the success of a family-run business that is one of the largest private enterprises in Austria and the largest single bead company in the world.
The leading Venetian glassmaker of his day, Angelo Barovier (1405-1460) developed the clearest glass of its time, called cristallo. It was de-colorized with manganese and required purified alkalis and special care to make. Still, it was slightly grayish and bubbled, and could only be considered of good quality in comparison to what else was available. It was mostly used on blown vessels, which helped make it as clear as possible. In 1683 Michael Muller at St. Anton in south Bohemia introduced chalk glass which came to know as Bohemian crystal. This was widely used by his countrymen, bit its brilliance was difficult to maintain.
Another user of lead glass was the company of garnet cutters in Turnov, Bohemia. Disturbed by the success of Venetian imitations, they sent the Fiser brothers to Venice to learn the secrets of making imitation stones. By 1715 they had developed a formula for composition, a lead-rich glass. They colored it red with gold to make a successful garnet simulation (the garnets of Bohemia are the red pyrope type). At first these imitation garnets were crudely pressed then cut into artificial stones; work done secretly by the garnet cutters. In time, it grew into the thriving Czech glass bead industry.
The Czech bead industry, while centered at Jabonec nad Nisou, was scattered into the countryside throughout the Jizera or Iser Mountains in Bohemia and neighboring Silesia. Much of the work was done in small factories and private homes, each specializing in certain types of beads. To one such bead-making family, Daniel Swarovski was born in 1862 in Georgenthal, near Jablonec nad Nisou. His father was a glass cutter, and it was in this profession that Daniel was trained.
Glass is not a substance but a state of matter. It is made when a metal or metalloid is melted by being heated above its point of crystallization and allowed to cool without crystallizing. Nearly and metal/metalloid can be made into glass, but the most common one is silica. Next most common is lead, usually with silica. Lead glass was made in Europe for a long time, but only on a limited scale for certain brightly colored enamels. The primary users of it through history have been the Chinese who have been making it for 3,000 years.
The amount of lead in glass is crucial to the end product. Small traces of lead may be in almost any glass, but it is not considered to have been purposely added until about 5% of the glass is lead. Larger amounts are usually needed to make what is commonly thought of as leaded glass or crystal. Swarovski uses a 30% lead proportion, calling this “full lead.” Remember, these percentages are by weight and lead is heavy; the percentage of lead by volume is much lower.
Lead does several things to glass which the glassmaker can exploit. It makes it easier to melt. It makes it softer and thus easier to cut. Particularly when potassium is used as the alkali, it produces a brilliant glass. It also helps dissolve certain other metals which are destined to impart various colors to the glass.