Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Crystal vs. Glass

I’m often asked about the difference between crystal and glass.  The answer is … there’s not a whole helluva lot.

In a nutshell, crystal is glass with a certain amount of lead in it.  The lead makes the glass hard and easy to cut into facets (in the case of beads) and it makes the facets refract light better than unleaded glass would.

In the bad old days crystal beads contained more lead than they do now.  Because of what we’ve learnt about all the fun and creative ways lead can mess with Mother Earth and her creatures, modern crystal manufacturers have had to lower the lead content considerably.

The ramifications of the lowered lead content in crystal beads are many-fold.  Many of the fabulous colours that were made in the thirties, forties and fifties have had to be discontinued or re-engineered.  Many of the classic cuts from that era were abandoned as well, for without the lead, the crystal wasn’t hard enough to facet as intricately.

Then wondrous science gave us the laser, and the Chinese -- that clever and enterprising people -- produced a lead-free crystal!  We laughed and gasped in amazement!  Until we realised the emperor had no clothes, and that we were looking at laser-cut glass that LOOKS like crystal, with crisp clean facets and all.  It looks nice, it’s affordable, it even comes in a couple of colors that real crystal doesn’t.

There’s a nifty item known as firepolish crystal.  This is also glass, and is molded, not cut into facets at all.  You can always tell firepolish because the edges aren’t as sharp as real (or even Chinese wanna-be) crystal.

For some reason that I cannot fathom, Austrian crystal has a rep as the be-all and end-all of all things sparkly.  Tain’t so.  The founders of the crystal feast in Europe were the Czechs, and they are still making fabulous crystal today.  In the mid to late 1800s the Russians turned out gorgeous crystal; between 1900 and the First World War, Poland was renowned for it’s crystal production; after World War Two, West Germany cranked out some incredible crystal; and some of the most amazing contemporary crystal beads I’ve seen are coming out of Egypt, made on German machinery.

Glass or crystal, it all has a place in jewelry design.  And THAT makes me happy.

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