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Crystal Gazing

If You Know What to Look For, You Don't Have to Get Married to Own Fine Stemware


In the film "True Lies," Bill Paxton, ineptly trying to seduce Jamie Lee Curtis in his trailer, pours wine into a pair of goblets, raises his glass in a toast and taps it against hers. They come together with a muddy "thuck."

Audiences inevitably responded to the bit with mildly outraged laughter. They expected crystal and got plastic. A kiss is just a kiss, but you don't, by golly, mock crystal.

Which is an attitude that can get in your way when the time comes to buy crystal of your own. To be sure, crystal stemware and barware is glass in a tuxedo, but shopping for it needn't be intimidating.

Crystal used at the table is known as stemware (glasses with bowls and slender stems) and barware (cocktail glasses and decanters). It is often included on brides' wish lists and the best stuff is commonly passed down through generations. It also accounts for a large portion of the business of the world's best known crystal manufacturers, which include Lalique, Baccarat, Waterford, and Orrefors and Kosta Boda.

This year, barware--think martini glasses--and colored crystal are quite the things to look for.

There are several characteristics that separate crystal from mere glass. Buyers, say industry representatives, should be familiar with those differences.

Clarity and brilliance: the defining criteria. Fine crystal is generally made by including a percentage of lead oxide in the mix. The higher the lead percentage, the clearer the crystal, and the more dazzlingly it will refract light, said Kris Brenner, a regional buyer for Macy's Southern California.

"If you're a wine drinker," she said, "you can look at the wine and really see it. That's what you want to look for, good clarity in the actual bowl of the glass."

Crystal with a minimum of 24% lead oxide is considered to be full lead crystal--the highest distinction--and is usually mouth-blown and hand cut.

Strength: Some of the finest crystal is remarkably delicate in appearance, but this is deceptive. Again, the lead content, along with the high temperatures at which crystal is fired, give it muscle.

Fragility is "an erroneous perception," said Shari James, vice president of product development for Baccarat Inc., the venerable French crystal house. "Crystal is a very durable product, one of the most durable materials there is."

In fact, James said, Baccarat's best-selling Harcourt design was originally ordered up by the Duke of Harcourt in 1825--to take into battle.

Manufacturing process and cut: Because the finest crystal is made entirely by hand, it's common to see tiny variations. But, manufacturers say, these are not flaws, but rather signs of high quality.

Each of the top manufacturers has a distinctive style. Waterford is known for intricately cut patterns and sturdy heft. Baccarat is recognizable for delicacy and clean, classic lines. Orrefors and Kosta Boda have made a name with lightness, contemporary design, and use of color and hand painting. And Lalique, known for its art glass, is also recognized for the high relief, sculptural appearance of its stemware. and barware.

Expect to pay for such quality. An intricately cut decanter from any of the top makers can run into the thousands of dollars. There are, however, several less pricey manufacturers that rely on machine-made crystal--among the more recognizable names are Mikasa and Lenox--from whom individual wine glasses can be had for as little as $10.

New styles and patterns are introduced by many manufacturers twice a year, and many designs are archived for the benefit of crystal owners who break a glass here and there. Some manufacturers offer specific replacement programs for owners missing a piece or two from their collection.

But, James said, the new trend in crystal ownership is mix-and-match.

"Gone are the days when everyone had one specific suite of crystal," she said. "The trend now is to have a different suite of glasses for each table setting. If you have the white wine glasses in one pattern, you can have the red wine glasses in another, as long as you keep the size consistent. The home furnishing magazines are reflecting this independence of spirit. Also, kids are not registering for one pattern in 47 sizes anymore. They'll register at Crate and Barrel for one thing and Baccarat for something else."

Also, said Chris Cullen, vice president of marketing for Orrefors and Kosta Boda, "Color is very much the growing thing in the crystal field. People want something more expressionistic and different."

"Martini glasses are probably the hottest thing right now, and brandy glasses are probably second," Macy's Brenner said. "This was not the case five years ago. It probably has a tie-in with the whole cigar trend."

Crystal ownership may be more casual lately, but when it comes to keeping the stuff clean it's best to be unbendingly traditional. "I wouldn't put my best stemware in the dishwasher," Brenner said. "I'd always do it by hand."

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