Nine months later, I’m still marveling at the concept. We’re so accustomed to recommended warranties, upgrades, scratch-and-dent, secondhand, good-as-new, the next, next, next best thing.
Nobody expects perfect anymore.
Waterford demands nothing less. A tiny error at any moment in the creation of something beautiful to hold or behold, and the crystal is smashed, the glass melted in a fire again. The multifaceted process begins anew.
We hadn’t planned to stop at the House of Waterford on our trip to Ireland last spring. We had just seven days and a robust list of must-dos recommended by friends, many of whom had visited Ireland numerous times.
In Dublin, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the famous Book of Kells at Trinity College, Kilmainhem Gaol (jail), the seven-story Guinness Brewery and a powerful two-person play at the Abbey Theatre. Later in the week, we took a spectacular drive around a portion of the Ring of Kerry and a heart-racing walk along the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, taking in the massive vistas on a brooding, gray day.
We welcomed the sun at soothing, earthy Newgrange, stepping inside the 5,000-year-old chamber of this Irish tomb.
And, naturally, traveling with my partly Irish boyfriend Patrick (a very good name to have on this trip, aye, Paddy?), we made stops at many pubs to sample his drink of choice: whiskey.
But on Day Three, we realized that the House of Waterford was on the way to our next destination, Hook Lighthouse, the oldest operational lighthouse in the world. It was hard to pass up a chance to see so much pretty under one roof; hard, at least, for one of us and the other was willing to pull over for an afternoon.
We didn’t have a reservation, but that wasn’t a problem. We were greeted warmly by the staff at the international headquarters in Waterford City, about two hours south of Dublin. The sleek new headquarters opened in 2010 and has welcomed more than 250,000 visitors from around the world since. The building has a significant wow factor, including soaring ceilings, a cafe with scrumptious cakes, and a massive and elegant retail store, housing the largest collection of Waterford in the world, from picture frames to water pitchers, to well-known Lismore champagne glasses and chandeliers.
The magic started in 1783, when George and William Penrose established the first manufacturing plant to produce flint glass in Waterford, Ireland. They flourished for decades but, in 1825, a new duty on glass placed a heavy burden on the company. The factory held on until 1851, when it ceased production and many of its artisans headed to Belfast.
After World War II, master blowers and cutters from Europe arrived in Waterford to train Irish apprentices. With superior furnaces, Waterford was reborn, continuing to dazzle in bigger ways.
Today, the factory creates more than 45,000 beautiful pieces annually.
Many people skip the tour and head straight for the store to see many of those pieces. Believe me, I was tempted, but I’m so glad we didn’t pass up the outstanding 90-minute walk through nearly every aspect of traditional crystal production.
By traditional, I mean human. At every station, we watched skilled artisans exhibit their talents.
We first entered the “Mould Room,” where molds and hand tools shape the molten crystal. The life span of molds, due to the heat, is less than two weeks.
In the noisy blowing department, we watched a craftsman, dressed casually in a gray T-shirt and black shorts, balance a fiery orange ball at the end of his blowing tube, then place the molten crystal into a cast-iron mold. For many minutes, he blew and turned the piece until it solidified — a signal that his work was done.
Then it was on to quality inspection, where each piece must pass six exacting checks, or it is sent back to the furnace for remelting. Those meeting the mark move on to the cutting department, which is not for the faint of heart.
Our charming cutter, with 36 years under his belt, handed visitors a piece of marble, the size of a palm. “Feel that piece of stone,” he said, “and how hard it is.” He grabbed it back and placed it against his whirring diamond-tipped wheel to show us how well the machine cut into it. Master cutters like him learn over years of trial and error just how much pressure to exert.
The heart-stopping part came when he put his hand on the shrieking wheel to show us how he stops it, then invited Patrick to do the same. I really didn’t want to have to drive the car, especially on the left side of the road, and fortunately didn’t have to. Patrick, hand unscathed, said the wheel felt like touching a fine luffa, “but if you apply pressure, it will cut.” Glad we didn’t have to prove it.
Before we continued on, a visitor commented that master cutters, considering what they have to lose, must be very highly paid. “As Bob Hope would say,” our jovial cutter answered, “we get paid weekly. Very weakly.”
Laughing, we ended the tour with the sculpting and engraving processes, our jaws dropping at the limited-edition pieces laid out on tables around us, including a horse-drawn carriage, international sporting trophies and a candy dish made for a queen, and it really was.
At last, it was time to shop. Patrick and I found a simple candy dish, which an engraver made special for us, etching our names and the year we visited.
Hook Lighthouse closed moments before we arrived. We parked, walked around and ran comically through the spongy, boggy grounds.
It would have been swell to have been able to walk to the top of the lighthouse and enjoy the view. But oh-so-carefully packed in our car’s trunk was a reminder of the wisdom of un-planning.
A perfect reminder.