Smaland, the densely forested southeastern region of Sweden is one of Europe's few remaining natural wonderlands. The area, known as Sweden's Kingdom of Glass, is dotted with 17 glassworks, including the reknowned Kosta, Boda and Orrefors factories, within a 90-mile radius of each other. These produce top-quality, well-designed full and demi-lead crystal, as well as ordinary glass--hand-blown, molded or pressed.
Visitors, using the charming town of Kalmar or historic city of Vaxjo as headquarters, may rent cars or take tour buses through the countryside, making the rounds of the glassworks. Each has a special line of products, a unique ambiance, informative and entertaining tours (conducted Monday to Friday between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., first come, first served), wonderful museums of ancient and contemporary glass and, last but not least, seconds shops, where items with almost imperceptible imperfections are sold for a fraction of what they would cost anywhere else in the world--up to 70% off U.S. retail prices and up to 40% off Swedish retail prices.
A Good Selection
Items sold in seconds shops vary from factory to factory, from day to day. But the shops are large, and you'll always find a good selection, ranging from full lead and ordinary stemware, tumblers, plates, platters, bowls, pitchers, ice buckets, decanters, vases, candleholders and other functional pieces to fanciful crystal animals, figurines, free-form sculptures and art objects of other sorts.
Crystal is graded according to the percentage of lead contained in the mixture. Ordinary glass contains silica, sand, soda and limestone. In crystal, potash and red lead are substituted for soda and limestone. Crystal is more brilliant; it glistens in the light. When struck, it produces a sustained bell-like tone. It has a softer surface, required for intricate cutting and engraving.
Swedish full lead crystal contains up to 30.6% red lead, about the highest working percentage. If too much lead is used, the crystal appears tinted or unclear. French, Czech or Irish crystal may contain an equally high percentage of lead, but Swedish design and craftsmanship are extraordinary. And Smaland's concentration of glassworks is unique.
Full lead crystal is not recommended for daily use because the surface scratches easily. Most Swedish glassworks produce both full and demi-lead lines. Prices for full lead are usually about double the prices of demi-lead, and full lead pieces are usually signed.
Swedish glassworks have exceptionally high standards of production, so you won't find many obvious flaws, even among the seconds. Check each item carefully before purchase. Also, shop ahead of time in U.S. department stores or gift shops to get an idea of comparable prices. Most of the glassworks will pack and ship your purchases if they're too heavy or bulky to carry.
Aside from the fantastic bargains, the experience of seeing crystal made will change your perception about glass forever. With the roaring sounds of furnaces and glass aglow, the air hot and dry, the atmosphere is exhilarating. The hot, molten, glowing gob of glass is passed quickly and gracefully from one set of hands to another, as it is blown, molded, and/or pressed into shape, and stems, handles or feet are attached. Up to seven workers participate in a complex ballet of industrial choreography that takes less than 10 minutes and produces a sparkling work of art.
Within the last decade, many glassworks have formed conglomerates in order to remain economically competitive. The Kosta Boda Group includes Afors and Johanfors, as well as Kosta (Sweden's oldest glassworks, founded in 1742 by two soldiers of the Royal Bodyguard of Charles XII) and Boda (founded in 1864). Long ago, these factories produced windowpanes and functional bottles; they are now best known for elegant crystal with the sleek forms of modern Swedish design and, through company-encouraged designer experimentation, a line of varied and innovative art glass, which includes colored, sandblasted and etched pieces.
Kosta Boda produces lovely pressed glass table service, including "Grapes" and "Party," with retail prices ranging from $30 for two plates to $50 for a large salad bowl. Full lead decorative pieces include the "Iceberg" series, with etched bears, reindeer and other animals in large glimmering chunks of crystal. "Iceberg" retail prices range from $200 to $4,000. Smaller animals and other sculptures range in retail price from $35 to $200. Charming glass Christmas tree ornaments cost $13 to $20.