When the crystal shone so brightly


The demise of Waterford Crystal signals the end of our long love affair with the iconic brand. Michael Parsonsrecalls the crystalline moments

ABOUT A MONTH before Christmas, Dunnes Stores in Kilkenny had a large display of Waterford Crystal on sale at knockdown prices of 75 per cent below the recommended retail cost. It was some sight to see the most renowned of Irish luxury branded goods for sale in a "pile'em high, sell 'em cheap" pyramid, shoehorned between the imported, mass-produced toys and clothes from China.

No disrespect to Dunnes Stores, of course, but the impact was as unexpected (and as unlikely) as seeing Beluga caviar on the menu at McDonalds or (genuine) Hermès scarves on a stall in Moore Street.

There were only two Waterford Crystal items available - ashtrays and golf-themed paperweights. Neither exactly top the seasonal shopping list in an increasingly smoke-free and paperless-office society. But they seem to have sold like hot cakes. So you may well have received one as an unexpected Christmas gift or - and sorry to break this to you - be getting such a piece if your wedding is this spring.

What a fall from grace. Once, no Irish newlyweds' home was complete without half-a-dozen of the notoriously heavy and simultaneously fragile crystal wine glasses - in one of the famous patterns such as Lismore or Colleen or Kincora. But these glittering symbols of Irish pride and sheer opulence were judged "too good for everyday use" and immediately placed into a china cabinet where most still linger.

Now these - also outdated - items of furniture have come to resemble Victorian "cabinets of curiosities" filled with redundant but much-loved objets - the Arklow china tea-set, the Lladro porcelain or exquisite, pre-War delicate figurines from Dresden.

And therein lies the clue to Waterford's gradual demise. Because no one seemed to use the product, it gradually came to be perceived as "impractical". Dinner tables became less formal, cheap glasses flooded in to shops and homes, and Waterford Crystal began to be seen as "old-fashioned" or something that appealed principally to sentimental American tourists.

But our national affection for the brand lingers on. Many Irish families still regard their Waterford Crystal pieces as heirlooms to be passed down through the generations - too important to throw out but too precious to use, and imbued with memories of major occasions in our lives - weddings, anniversaries, retirements and famous victories.

And, maybe also, nostalgia for a more gracious age when decanters glowed with golden whiskey or ruby-red port to be poured - liberally - into reassuringly chunky tumblers or elegant, stemmed glasses for a tweed-clad bourgeoisie after a day at the races.

There's pride too that the crystal considered to be "the best in the world" hangs in the Palace of Westminster and Buckingham Palace. And the White House in Washington, DC is presumably full of it - with the annual presentation of the glistening shamrock-filled bowl to US presidents by a succession of taoisigh. And, for decades, pretty much every prestigious sports award ceremony - from golf to the GAA - involved the presentation of huge and unwieldy pieces which may have looked impressive, but in truth became dust collectors in trophy cabinets and mantelpieces around the world.

Jazzing up the brand - particularly by giving it a more contemporary twist with the ranges designed by John Rocha - did briefly revive the brand's appeal among younger, more affluent consumers during the early years of the economic boom. But by then there were competitors aplenty - notably the crystal companies of Tipperary and Cavan and the flood of impressive-looking and cheap imports from eastern Europe.

Affection for the brand lingers on. The Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre is the biggest tourist attraction in the southeast - with over 300,000 people a year flocking to see the skills of the glass blowers and engravers. But the fear now is that the Centre may be destined to become yet another museum to our industrial and manufacturing past.