Audrey Hepburn’s tiara in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Michael Jackson’s 1984 Victory Tour glove, the bejewelled sheer dress that Rihanna wore earlier this year to the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards: these iconic pieces are just a small part of the legacy of world-famous Austrian brand Swarovski, which celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2015.
To really understand Swarovski, however, you need to go back to the late 19th century and the province of Bohemia, which was then a hub of the glassmaking industry. Daniel Swarovski grew up surrounded by crystal glass, but it was his trip to the Vienna International Electric Exhibition in 1883, at the age of 21, that really fuelled his imagination and would be the catalyst for events that would change the industry for ever.
Inspired by his visit, and after much research, Swarovski came up with a machine that could cut and polish crystals, replacing the laborious hand processes that had been customary until then. Filled with ambition, and armed with a patent, the young man left Bohemia for Wattens, a market town high in the Austrian Alps which had the resources, particularly water power, he needed to develop his product further. It was here that he founded Swarovski in 1895.
Year on year, the company kept on growing. Another milestone came in 1913 when Swarovski started producing its own crystals. The flawless creations caused a stir, and attracted the attention of people well beyond the borders of Austria. Six years later, there was another significant development: the founding of Tyrolit, a branch of the Swarovski group that produces grinding, sawing, drilling and dressing machinery, which continues to be a market leader in Europe. Tyrolit was followed by Swarovski Optik (precision optical equipment such as binoculars) in 1949 and Swarovski Lighting in 1966. And, of course, the 1970s gave rise to the crystal figurines for which the company has become so famous.
Swarovski’s relationship with fashion was fostered early on in the company’s history, notably through close and mutually enriching ties with Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel and later Christian Dior. More recently, following an introduction in 1999 by Isabella Blow, Alexander McQueen became the designer who really helped to introduce Swarovski to a new, younger generation with, for example, his acclaimed Widows of Culloden collection. The Swarovski Collective, also set up in 1999, was a direct result of the collaboration with McQueen; in the 15 or so years since it was founded, 150 further collections from carefully chosen established or less well-known brands have followed.
Fashion aside, the company has also been instrumental in supporting innovation in the world of interior design. For Swarovski’s Crystal Palace project, for example, designers such as Zaha Hadid, Ron Arad and Tod Boontje have been invited to deconstruct and reinvent the traditional chandelier. With initiatives such as these, Swarovski is constantly seeking to push boundaries.
Despite its passion for looking forward, the brand still takes its heritage seriously. Swarovski remains a family business: its creative director Nadja Swarovski is the great-great-granddaughter of the founder and, along with four other fifth-generation family members, sits on the executive board. Swarovski hasn’t forgotten its geographical roots either: it still produces crystals in Wattens where, 20 years ago, the brand also unveiled its Swarovski Kristallwelten (‘crystal worlds’) museum to coincide with its centenary celebrations. It gives visitors an insight into the world of crystals, with exhibits created by artists and designers such as Salvador Dalí and Niki de Saint Phalle, reaffirming Swarovski’s ties with design, art and fashion.
Swarovski is involved with a host of other projects, from charitable work through the Swarovski Foundation to sponsoring events such as Design Miami. From a small family business, Swarovski has become the ubiquitous force that has revolutionised the jewellery industry, and so much more. Its influence reaches right into the world of fashion, art, design and architecture. Although crystals are a heritage product, Swarovski is just as relevant and innovative today as it was when Daniel Swarovski turned the industry on its head in order to create ‘a diamond for everyone’.