The House of Waterford Crystal is one of Ireland’s top attractions, drawing visitors from all over the world who come to enjoy the fascinating factory tour and to explore the largest display of Waterford Crystal in the world.
The History of Waterford Crystal
In 1783, when Beethoven was publishing his first works and the world’s first hot air balloon took place in Paris, in Waterford City the Penrose’s, George and William, petitioned Parliament for aid to establish the manufacture of flint glass in their Waterford Glass House. They were successful and established an extensive glass manufactory in Waterford city on the 3rd October 1783. By the following year the factory was in full swing and the Penrose’s made all kinds of useful and ornamental flint glass of ‘as fine a quality as any in Europe’. They had a large number of the best craftsmen, blowers, cutters and engravers, by which they could supply every article in the most elegant style. It cost the Penrose’s £10,000 to build and equip the factory, which at first employed 50 to 70 workers.
In 1785, mention is made of a Mr. John Hill, a great glass manufacturer of Stourbridge who had gone to Waterford, and taken with him the best set of workmen he could get in the County of Worcester.
This John Hill was a key figure in the whole enterprise. The Penrose’s were businessmen who knew nothing about the making of glass. So John Hill was brought in as a compounder, the only man who knew the secret of mixing the glass materials. It was also Hill’s decision to polish the glass after cutting, therefore removing the ‘frosted’ appearance, which was later to become one of Waterford’s key signatures.
The renown of Waterford cut glass continued to grow and soon it was entering the export market on the grand scale. The Dublin Chronicle of August 21, 1788, noted that ‘ a very curious service of glass has been sent over from Waterford to Milford for their Majesties’ use, and by their orders forwarded to Cheltenham, where it has been much admired and does much credit to the manufacture of this country.’
William Penrose died in 1796 and the family carried on until 1797, when the business was advertised for sale, however it was not until 1799 that the new company took over. The partners were James Ramsey, Aimbrose Barcroft and Jonathan Gatchell. Ramsey died about 1810 and the partnership was dissolved. This was Jonathan Gatchell’s moment of destiny. The boy who had joined the Penrose’s as a clerk in 1783 now became sole proprietor of the glasshouse and remained in command until his death in 1823, altogether an association of forty years. The new proprietor had to face a new law, imposed in 1811, which decreed that flint glass made in Ireland and exported was liable to duty, so Jonathan had had to mortgage the glass-house to raise the money to take over the business.
Jonathan married late in life as on his death in 1823 he left a widow, Sarah, and three young children, George, Frances and Isabella. According to the will, George was to take over the glasshouse on attaining his majority in 1835. Until then, the family carried on in various partnerships, the most notable being the introduction, in 1826, of a steam engine to drive the cutting wheels.
On taking over, young George evidently felt the need for some older head in the business, for he took a George Saunders, who had worked with the firm for many years, into a partnership which lasted until 1848. George then carried on alone until 1851.
But George had really taken over a struggling business. The industry had suffered another crippling blow in 1825 when an additional duty was placed on all glass made in Great Britain and Ireland. The Waterford factory struggled on for another quarter of a century but the writing was already on the wall. George maintained the Waterford standards, winning silver medals at the Royal Dublin Society’s Exhibitions of 1835 and 1836 for cut flint glass. When the Waterford factory ceased production, many of the workers went to Belfast, where the industry struggled on until 1870. The Pugh’s in Dublin held on until 1896, when the making of flint glass in Ireland ceased. George Gatchell left Waterford in December 1851, and spent the rest of his life in England, where he died sometime between 1880 and 1890. So ended the first phase of the story of Waterford crystal.
After the Second World War, faced with the Communist take-over of his native Czechoslovakia, Charles Bacik came to Ireland to help set up a crystal factory. It was a journey that took through Germany, Belgium and England to Ireland. In 1947, while Europe was still in ruins after the Second World War, a small factory was set up in Ballytruckle, a suburb of Waterford.
Charles Bacik and Noel Griffin travelled to the Continent. They recruited approximately 30 blowers and cutters from various parts of Europe who came to Waterford to train young Irish apprentices and among them was Miroslav Havel, a blower from Czechoslovakia. Bacik persuaded Havel to come work in his Waterford factory. Havel made as his first task a studious inspection of the old pattern books from the defunct Waterford Flint Glass Works of the previous century, which were stored in the National Museum in Dublin. This study would greatly influence the first patterns, or suites, to be produced at the Johnstown factory. Through the years, Havel has been the chief designer. He could blow, cut, sculpt, paint and engrave as well as design the Lismore pattern, which became the most popular pattern ever made by Waterford.
The new factory progressed and, in 1950, Bacik, Fitzpatrick, McGrath, Griffin and a number of other prominent businessmen injected further necessary capital, Joseph McGrath became Chairman and Joseph Griffin became Managing Director of the reorganised company. A move to a larger site in Johnstown, nearer to the city centre was made necessary due to increased growth. Newer and better furnaces were built in 1951 and Waterford Crystal began its amazing second phase, which, ultimately, was to take the company to the summit of the world's crystal industry.
It was in 1955 that Waterford Crystal made its first profits. At the time, word of mouth was their best advertising by visitors to Ireland. In 1958, it was decided to no longer do business through the New York agent and to go it alone.. During the 1960's and 1970's demand for Waterford Crystal expanded dramatically and in 1970, a new factory was opened in Kilbarry. It was the largest manufacturing unit of its type in the world .In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Waterford Crystal was hit by a severe financial crisis. It was due mainly to a dramatic fall in the value of the dollar, decline in demand, inflationary labour agreements and unsuccessful and costly restructuring attempts. It was in 1990 when new investors turned the trend around with a cash injection.
New owners, the Waterford Wedgwood Group, enlisted the help of celebrities to promote their brands. John Rocha’s Waterford designs were an overnight success as were British designer Jasper Conran’s designs. Other acquisitions made by Waterford Wedgwood includes the ceramic companies Rosenthal and All Clad. Perhaps Waterford Crystal’s greatest promotion to date was the Times Square New Year’s Eve Millennium Ball of which an estimated 1.2 billion people watched with awe and amazement as the 6-foot diametric crystal ball was lowered down the pole during the New York year 2000 countdown.
During the difficult financial crisis in 2008, the Waterford Wedgwood Group and associated companies were unable to secure additional financial revenue to maintain the operation of their global business. On 30th January 2009, it was announced that Waterford Crystal was in receivership. However, in February 2009 it was confirmed that KPS Capital, a US based equity firm were to purchase some overseas assets and businesses of the Waterford Wedgwood Group.
In January 2010 WWRD Group Holdings Limited, the leading luxury goods group which owns and operates the Waterford Crystal, Wedgwood and Royal Doulton brands, announced that it had signed an agreement with Waterford City Council to open a brand new Waterford Crystal manufacturing facility and retail outlet in the very heart of Waterford. The new Waterford Crystal Manufacturing Facility melts down more than 750 tonnes of crystal and produces more than 45,000 pieces each year using traditional methods. The facility offers guided tours of the manufacturing process to all of its visitors both International and domestic.
The House of Waterford Crystal in the Viking Triangle in Waterford City is now one of Ireland’s top visitor attractions, with visitors from all over the world coming to enjoy the factory tour and crystal showroom.