Waterford man puts sparkle into New Year’s Eve Times Square ball
Tom Brennan (48) says theme for this year’s crystal ball in New York is harmony
Tom Brennan, who works for Waterford Crystal, the company that creates the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball, on the roof of 1 Times Square with the ball, in New York, earlier this month. Photograph: James Estrin/The New York Times
For much of the past 111 years, the sparkling New Year’s Eve Times Square ball in New York has been a signal for the 1.2 billion people watching it across the globe to dance, cheer, blow their horns and embrace. It has become such a touchstone that it almost seems like another year can’t start without it.
The ball is the product of the Times Square Alliance and Waterford Crystal, the Irish company that’s been maintaining the 2,688 crystal-paneled orb for 19 years.
The man entrusted with the crystal, Tom Brennan (48), takes his role so seriously that he starts working on next year’s ball in January. “We have a glass of Champagne,” he said, “take a week off, and then start improving it for next year.”
Brennan grew up in Waterford, home of the crystal company. His father was a master glassblower for 30 years, and he used to run around the factory as a child watching him work. In 1986, when he was 16, he started to learn the craft. He recalled making a port glass as his first project.
“With my uneducated eye, it looked great,” he said. “But then they did a quality check, and I realised the part you hold in your hand was all lopsided.”
Brennan has improved since then. Five years ago, he was promoted to the role of master artisan. With his new title came responsibility for the famous ball. “I still can’t believe this huge thing that the world watches comes out of my small hometown,” he said.
This is an edited and condensed version of a recent conversation with him.
Q: Tell us something we don’t know about the ball.
A: In the past, the ball would have the same pattern every year. But six years ago we decided to introduce themes. We wanted to give people a simple message that they could think about for just one day or one hour. In 2014, the first year, the theme was imagination. Then it was fortitude, wonder, kindness and serenity. For 2019, the theme is harmony. Of course it’s a marketing message, but I try to personalise it. I’ve been thinking about what it means to my work/life balance and to my wife and kids.
Q: The ball is 12 ft in diameter and weighs 11,875 lbs. How does it get made?
A: The entire ball doesn’t get remade every year. This year, only 192 panels with the new theme were replaced. We make the panels the same way crystal has been made for 5,000 years, along with some updated technology. We take imported sands from all over the world. I’m not permitted to tell you which kinds, along with potash (a sort of fertiliser made from potassium chloride) and crushed crystal. We fire up the furnace to 2,400 degrees and heat the material. When it starts to look like this bright orange, yellow, toffee-like substance, we mould it.
That creates a blank crystal panel. Then we hold it against this cutting wheel and groove it and shape it into the design we want. That’s when we cut the theme into it. The total process takes weeks and weeks. We have to make sure every piece is perfect. We don’t accept anything that is potentially flawed. It also takes a large team, hundreds and hundreds of people. You have the glassblowers, the glass cutters, the packaging engineers, the quality checkers, I can go on and on.
Q: How does the ball get to Times Square?
A: It is kept at 1 Times Square (in the building with the Walgreens at the bottom.) We ship in the new panels on whatever airline is flying that day. We have special containers. Then they are kept in a secret location in New York City, and we make sure that they are completely guarded until they are ready to be used. This year, on December 27th, our engineers installed them onto the ball.
Q: Does anything ever go wrong?
A: The panels have never not arrived; we plan it too carefully. But from time to time something breaks, or there is a last-minute quality check, so we always have some extra. I don’t think there is any person who has ever worked for Waterford who hasn’t had that moment when it’s like, you broke that beautiful vase or glass. Your heart stops for a moment.
Q: The first ball drop was in 1907. How has technology changed since then?
A: The first ball was made of wood and steel and had 100 light bulbs installed over it. Now, behind the crystal panels, are 13,000 LED lights. We have this incredible team of engineers who designed a software program that creates billions of different light patterns. You can see the different coloured lights flashing, circling, going in different directions.
Q: The ball is a celebrity in New York. Do you have any fun stories of people interacting with it?
A: I’ll never forget one day when I was walking through the New York Stock Exchange with one of the crystal panels about to be installed onto the ball. There were traders everywhere in their jackets, and the monitors were all lit up with the stocks going up and down. But when word got around that there was a crystal panel on the trading floor, I was surrounded. They were all jumping around trying to take pictures with it.
I think people get so excited about the ball because it’s like the changing of the guards. It’s out with the old, in with the new. And it’s crystal. The one thing that crystal is associated with is celebration. – New York Times