A small village in the depth of a French forest has become the home of some of the world’s most renowned pieces of crystal.
In the 15th Century, glassmakers in Murano, near Venice, produced an almost colorless glass which they called “cristallo.” It was thin, elegant, and much purer than existing glass.
In 1676, a London glassmaker discovered the formula for lead crystal. It was nicknamed “flint glass” due to the high amount of powdered flint in its manufacture, and was used mainly for optics. Finally, in 1781, the first crystal as we know it today was produced.
The story of Baccarat began in France in 1764, when Montmorency – Laval, the Bishop of Metz, got permission form King Louis XV to set up a glassworks of Baccarat, a small village in the depths of the Vosges forest near Lorraine. The glassworks prospered, and by 1860 was one of the leading exporters of crystal to the world.
Baccarat kept pace with the changing technology, introducing the latest fashions of the era in its collections, but creating its own originals at the same time. Baccarat survived two world wars, using the periods of inactivity to renovate and update its factory. Today, it has a range of 2,000 products comprising dinner services, table accessories, decoration, decanters and lighting fixtures.
Up to 1835, Baccarat dictated sober fashions: simple glasses with little cut-work, short and flat-based with straight sides. The style was termed the Regency look. Styles changed in 1839 becoming more elaborate, and the first crystal chandeliers were introduced. These ultimately achieved enormous proportions, some being five meters high. The first balloon-shaped glasses (the predecessors of the wine-taster’s “ballon”) were launched by Baccarat in 1849.
The fashion for profusely decorated crystal was set by Baccarat in 1870. It peaked in the early 1900s, but by 1939, simplicity was back in fashion. From 1958 onwards, Baccarat began the trend of crystal pieces being signed by well-known artists and sculptors including Salvador Dali, and Georges Chevalier. The pieces designed by Georges Chevalier for Baccarat soon after the second world war have become some of the most coveted in the history of crystal.
Crystal is glass with more than 24 per cent lead and with a refraction index above or equal to 1.54. Every crystal manufacturer has its own mix of raw materials, which are largely responsible for the quality of the final product. There are other factors as well – melting techniques, blowing skills and the type of furnaces used – which add or detract from total perfection of the crystal.
Baccarat crystals consist of silica (57 per cent), lead oxide (27 per cent), potassium oxide (14 per cent), and various products in minute quantities (2 per cent). Manufacture begins by mixing the different components in clay crucibles, called pots. These are placed in furnaces at a constant temperature of about 1500 degrees. The melting crystal is then gathered on the end of a steel rod which is turned continuously. This rod is passed on to a blower who shears off the required quantity for the article he is making and blows it through a hollow rod into the desired shape.
Once the shape has been achieved, the blower passes his rod back to the first blower who connects the different pieces of crystal to make it a perfect harmonious whole. The piece is then cooled. The first rigorous check is conducted at this stage. At the sign of the slightest flaw, it is destroyed.
Once a piece has passed the first check, it is cut, engraved, flattened and polished. In spite of the care taken, nearly 35 per cent of articles are destroyed in each lot as failing to reach Baccarat quality.
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