A new Irish crystal design cuts it for a new generation

Waterford skills and international vision go into new crystal brand, J Hill Standard

 

‘Hard, beautiful, empty and easy to see through,” was F Scott Fitzgerald’s description in a short story of a cut-glass bowl given to a woman by her thwarted, rejected lover as a bitter symbol of her character.

Crystal can take on many meanings and associations but Waterford is an Irish brand with global cachet. The fortunes of the glass company, once the finest in the world with more than 3,000 workers, faded dramatically when it went into receivership seven years ago.

Now an ambitious initiative from Waterford is putting Irish crystal back on the map internationally with up-to-the-minute design and a fresh approach that cuts it, so to speak, with a new generation.

“Most of the global brands are a bit staid, and old-fashioned heavy-cut crystal has lost its connection to the younger market,” says Anike Tyrrell, the powerhouse behind J Hill Standard, the new Irish crystal brand. “We wanted to create functional pieces, that are usable and accessible, with high design ideals; not a traditional crystal product.”

Called after John Hill, an 18th-century glassmaker with Bohemian roots who came to Ireland and revolutionised Irish crystal, the company made its debut at Milan’s Salone del Mobile two years ago with collections created in collaboration with two of the most sought-after industrial design studios: Martino Gamper in London and Scholten & Baijings in the Netherlands. Since then it has won many awards and, in a first for an Irish company, its whiskey tumblers are now on permanent display in the Louvre in Paris. We meet in Ring, Co Waterford, where master cutter Eamonn Terry is working on a J Hill Standard whiskey tumbler from Gamper’s Cutting series.

“It’s not what you see but what you feel when you are cutting crystal, a bit like playing the guitar,” he explains as he demonstrates how he grinds indentations on a diamond wheel following guiding marks made with an indexing machine.

One of five apprentices taken on by Waterford in 1970, Terry remained “in the glass” for 20 years, becoming the youngest master cutter in the company with his own cutting team, before leaving to set up on his own. Apprenticeships in the factory took five years, with another five to become a blower. “When someone sees what goes into making a glass like this and the hour-long process for the acid polishing, you can see the difference between that and a piece made by machine,” he says.

 

The two collectins show crystal in a completely new light. The generous cuts of Gamper’s Cutting series stripped the material away like a woodcarver, and being a furniture designer, the celebrated Italian brought a new perspective to the glass.

The Elements collection by Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings focused on lines and grids and the balance between opaque sandblasted sections and transparent, polished ones.

“We worked with designers who would bring something totally new and fresh and not derivative,” says Tyrrell. She spent 20 years as chief executive of Waterford County Enterprise Board, and her background in enterprise and rural development made her aware of preserving skills and the potential of reviving mouth-blown and hand-cut glass.

“I had a huge commitment to community development and the revitalisation of craft-based skilled work in Ireland. I think of them as slow skills – tailoring, glass blowing and cutting, manufacturing of food products and so on,” she says.

Founder of the Dungarvan Farmers’ Market and the Dungarvan Food Festival, the Kilkenny native began the glass project to shore up the skills lost after the closure of Waterford Crystal.

“As an outsider meeting the people who set up in its wake, you could see where they might be going wrong. With enterprise development, because you are dealing with manufacturing, craft and engineering, it gives you a huge oversight and you learn a lot if you are receptive,” she says.

As a business strategist, Tyrrell took on the challenge of the crystal project by leaving her job, setting up a company with her husband, pharmacist Christopher Kelly, and engaging London brand consultant Laura Houseley, the editor of Modern Design Review, to work out collaborations. “It was surprisingly easy to get engaged with designers and we whittled it down to two – they were so engaging and excited and down to earth. They responded immediately to the idea of helping to revitalise the industry.”

Now she plans further collaborations with Northern Irish architect and artist Nigel Peake (who works with Hermès and others), the French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and French designer and maker Inge Sempé. “Industrial designers are humble and not like divas. Hand-cut crystal is a skill that is disappearing so there is a huge collaborative feeling like we are the last left standing. I would like to do more colour work, for instance.”

New project

Already, one new project exploring other aspects of glass – a mobile made with crystal discs by the award-winning Norwegian designer Daniel Rybakken shown in Milan – has aroused international interest.

Though the “blanks” for the table-top collections are hand blown in the Czech Republic, another future ambition would be to install a furnace in Waterford.

J Hill Standard is now stocked in shops in Japan, New York, Oslo, Switzerland, Norway, UK and in Ireland, with 65 styles between the two collections, at prices from €60 to €545, with tumblers €150-€160.

At an exclusive private dinner in Milan for the recent furniture fair held by the Nilufar Gallery with vintage champagne served in J Hill Standard glasses, guests including Domenico Dolce of Dolce & Gabbana could be seen sipping from Irish crystal; fans who have bought pieces include Kevin Spacey and photographer Mary McCartney.

“People buy the crystal for themselves a lot, especially men in the US, and others for wedding gifts. I don’t want to do loads of stuff,” adds Tyrrell. “Just simple things that are beautiful. It will be five years before it becomes a steady stream, but it is all going in the right direction at the moment.”

J Hill Standard crystal will be in the Marvel Room in Brown Thomas, Dublin, from October 24th. See also makersandbrothers.com

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