Glass has been made for thousands of years, becoming a real craft with the advent of monastery and cathedral building in the middle ages. The continent, especially Venice, saw a trade develop and skilled glassblowers were highly valued.
Glass is made from the basic ingredients silica, soda and limestone, but other minerals were added to create different colours. The manufacturing process was also refined over the centuries to achieve less imperfections and a higher quality end product.
In the 1600s, a process whereby lead was added to the glass mixture was patented. It was discovered that the lead improved the quality of the glass, with a higher lead content leading to less imperfections. Glass with added lead was harder and brighter, and produced a ringing sound when struck. It lent itself well to cutting, and with the advent of lead glass, glass-cutting took off.
As the number of glasshouses increased and became lucrative, the government decided to tax them, putting many out of business. Those that survived all had their own glass recipes and their own designs. In the 1800s the Swarovski glasshouse was founded and is now world-famous for its crystal.
Crystal refers to leaded glass, which because of its manufacturing process and superior qualities, is more expensive than ordinary glass. Swarovski crystal is set apart from other types because of its unique cutting and polishing process. All of the factory’s products are made in-house, with each piece of crystal cut specifically for a purpose.
There are many other types of crystal however which are used in chandeliers, jewellery and other decorations. The term ‘diamante’ refers to a sparkling decoration, and could mean any sort of cut crystal or diamond substitute.
Crystal shouldn’t be confused with cubic zirconia however, which has a very different chemical makeup. CZ was produced to simulate diamonds and is not glass-based like lead crystal. It is also clear with a higher perfection than real diamonds. Crystal is often coloured for effect; in fact one of the advantages of crystal is that it can easily be coloured to achieve a huge range of styles.
Nowadays machines are used to cut crystal, because of their higher efficiency and also precision. Where only simple styles were possible before the modern age, now complex, faceted crystals are commonplace. All over the world manufacturers can buy crystals to make up into jewellery or other decorative items, although some like Swarovski still pride themselves on doing everything, from production to design, in-house.