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The secrets of Czech crystal

The Czech Republic has been producing crystal for centuries. Stephen Doig discovers the fascinating history of this beautiful craft

Stephen Doig

Feature

by Stephen Doig

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With its luscious greenery, pretty buildings and winding rivers, Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic doesn’t immediately appear to be at the epicentre of innovative design. For centuries, however, the area has played a very important part in Czech crystal design. Crystal today might evoke names such as Swiss brand Swarovski, but the Czech Republic is seen by many as the traditional home of crystal production, and the country’s leading brands continue to blaze a trail in innovative, bold crystal design.

Crystal production has been an important part of Czech craft culture since the 1600s. Archaeological excavations even suggest that, as far back as 1250, the area was a hub of crystal and glass production in what was then Bohemia. (The difference between glass and crystal is down to the presence of lead in the glass; a high percentage of lead means it is classed as crystal and is more pliable, heavier and helps diffract light to create that all important sparkle and shine.) Crystal production thrived here due to the area’s natural resources. The discovery of potassium in the earth, combined with chalk, gave a particular clarity to the glass. The addition of lead meant that, thanks to the shine this lent it, jewellery from Bohemia became a status symbol in the Austrian and Russian courts.

Thankfully for modern-day Empress Sisis, a handful of Czech crystal specialists still create stunning pieces for fashion and the home. Moser was founded as a glassworks in 1857 in Karlovy Vary – then known as Carlsbad – and went on to create crystal pieces for the tables of royalty across Europe. Despite technological advancement and global reach, the brand still blows, cuts and decorates its crystal by hand; the crystal is placed against high-speed wheels to enable fluid cutting and each piece is hand-painted by specialists at the original Karlovy Vary site.

Moser has long been renowned for its rich colourways – due to the raw materials and oxides in the mixture, the secrets of which are closely guarded – and collaborations with artists. These qualities are still very much in evidence in the brand’s array of contemporary pieces including Kolorit, a collection of architectural, block-shaped vases in rich, saturated colours, and its striking, sculptural Butterfly and Butterfly Wing vases. Bowl pieces such as Lotus Blossom, Galaxy and Cubism also spectacularly showcase Moser’s ability to marry incredible design with traditional methods of production.

At Bohemia Crystal, this emphasis on innovation continues. It was originally founded as a place to showcase the rich talent of the country’s glass schools in Kamenický Šenov and Nový Bar, as well as glass-blowers in the Bohemia regions. Today, it offers a range of brand names alongside an in-house collection of crystal pieces. While many pieces are of the traditional ilk, there are also modern ranges including Ice Glamour in sculptural, sleek, lead crystal; Flake and Flame in vibrant, festive jewel tones, with snowflake patterns and flame tendrils; and the angular Neptune range. These ranges show the skill of the brand’s hand cutters, with truly outstanding artistry.

While the area of Kamenický Šenov is traditionally famous for producing large-scale crystal pieces and has been making grand crystal chandeliers since 1724, leading crystal brand Preciosa, which originated there, also creates bold, contemporary jewellery. Its phenomenal chandeliers are still a part of the company’s DNA and take pride of place in the Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace Saint Petersburg, Four Seasons Hotel Beijing, and at a host of One & Only resorts. The brand applies the same artistry and craft to crystal jewellery, including droplet necklaces with semi-precious stones and a range of crystal-encrusted evening bags. Are diamonds a girl’s best friend? In the Czech Republic, we’re opting for crystal.

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