Sunday, 18 June 2006

Swarovski gems: crystal glass that dazzles collectors worldwide

by Christopher Proudlove©
Daniel Swarovski was a pioneer who invented the first machine to cut crystal glass in 1892 and soon his crystal gems set a fashion trend by enhancing the femail form.

eBay power-seller Berliner Marion von Kuczkowski, 40, has hit on a scheme already dubbed "a gem of a strip show" - to stick a million glittering Swarovski crystals on to the body of curvaceous model Chantal and sell them off at one euro a pop (that's 68p in old money). As the crystals are sold, so Chantal is revealed in all her glory. Part of the sale will also benefit a charity, as yet unnamed. The money raised from the sale of the last handful of crystals, however many there are, will be delivered by Chantal (presumably clothed) to the buyer wherever he or she might be in the world and their purchase price donated to "an international help organisation". You can witness the progress at

However, there are many more ways in which to buy Swarovski creations, most if not all of them more rewarding. They are the ever-present stock in trade of countless high street gift shops and they make perfect presents, particularly for the new, younger generation of collectors. Admittedly, they're not everyone's cup of tea but to give them their due, they are very clever and clearly carefully constructed. More importantly, the story behind them is fascinating.

Young Daniel Swarovski was born in 1862 in Bohemia in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the most important glass manufacturing centres in Europe. His father owned a small glass-making factory which gave the family a good living and so it was a foregone conclusion that Daniel should be an apprentice there.

At that time crystal glass was cut entirely by hand, the skilled engraver working one piece at a time, incising the surfaces by holding them against high-speed rotating cutting wheels. The process was arduous and hugely labour-intensive. A complex piece could take hours to produce and wastage was high, a simple, single mistake rendering an otherwise perfect product completely useless. Examine an old piece of cut-glass closely and it is quite possible to see the slight variations in patterns which are inevitable with hand-cutting.

Daniel learned the business the hard way, mastering the technique of hand-cutting both in his father's factory as well as at several others in the region. But he was of a new generation of industrialists and was eager to introduce change. At the age of 21, he visited the first Elektrische Ausstellung (electrical exhibition) in Vienna, where he saw the innovations being introduced by such inventors as Thomas Edison (1847-1931) and Werner von Siemens (1816-1892). The exhibition was the inspiration for Daniel's idea of inventing a machine for the precision cutting of crystal glass.

It took nine years of painstaking trial and error before the machine was perfected and ready to patent but in 1892, Daniel's creation was poised to revolutionise the production of cut crystal glass. His machine was faster, more precise, error-free and could do the work of several men without the need for a lengthy apprenticeship and training period.

In 1895 Daniel, his brother-in-law Franz Weis and their friend Armand Kosmann founded the Swarovski company which continues today, in Wattens, near Innsbruck in the Austrian Tyrol, Austria, where a newly-built hydroelectricity plant was producing cheap plentiful power for the energy-intensive grinding machines he had invented.

In 1908 and with his sons Wilhelm, Friedrich and Alfred working for him, Daniel's thoughts turned to making his own glass rather than using that imported from the factories around him. Experimenting in a workshop specially built next to the family's villa in Wattens, he spent the next three years designing and building a melting oven, followed by more time experimenting with recipes to produce flawless crystal. The breakthrough came in 1913, allowing mass production to take off.

By 1917 Swarovski had introduced grinding tools which were used to produce jewell-sized crystal stones and in 1919 they were registered under the brand name Tyrolit. Swarovski's brilliant-cut "gems" were the toast of Europe, championed in particular by the Parisian fashion houses and jewellers who incorporated them into their designs. As a result, Swarovski concentrated on Tyrolit production and even went so far as to invent a crystal-set fabric which could be sewn directly or on to clothes and other accessories. The glittering flapper dresses so loved during the Roaring Twenties owe their existence to Swarovski, who patented the invention in 1931.

Today, the range of products is vast from the highest quality scientific instruments and telescopic rifle scopes; sunglasses; jewellery, fashion and home accessories; and for the collector, miniature figurines like the ones illustrated here. Love them or loathe them, they cannot be ignored and they have a huge following around the world. The Swarovski Crystal Society, formed in 1987, unites those who share the passion and has more than 400,000 members in more than 30 countries.

It would be hard to imagine a better way to introduce a young antiques collector to a hobby that could last a lifetime than to start him or her off with the gift of a crystal figurine which, purchased second-hand, could be had for pocket money. However, hard-bitten collectors spend small fortunes on limited edition Swarovski collectables which can fetch serious money. Auction houses tend to sell the less expensive figures in groups of three to six with bids usually coming in at around the £40 to 60 mark. A rarity such as the 1989 limited edition of Turtle doves sells for around £350, while Lovebirds, dating from 1987 is dearer at around £500. Look for the swan trademark as proof of authenticity.

Picture shows: The Swarovski Crystal Society (SCS) produces a boxed collectors’ edition of figures with certificate each year. This example dates from the 1999 and is called 'Masquerade - Pierrot', designed by Adi Stocker

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