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8 January 2009

It was a huge shock this morning when Regis Philbin mentioned that Waterford Crystal was going out of business.  He was corrected by his director, Michael Ghelman, who said that there was going to be "restructuring."  But it sent me to the internet to find out what's going on.

Apparently they have been losing money for the past five years and filed for bankruptcy on January 5, after attempts to restructure the business or find a buyer failed.

According to the MSNBC web site, The U.K. joint administrators said they intended to continue to run the business as they seek a buyer. Trading in the company's shares was suspended on the Irish Stock Exchange where they languished at just one-tenth of a euro cent and the company's directors — including Anthony O'Reilly, the Irish publishing magnate who along with his brother-in-law Peter Goulandris owns more than half of all Waterford Wedgwood shares — handed in their resignations.

Waterford opened for business in 1783, failed in 1850 and was reopened in 1947.

We toured the Waterford factory in 1996 when we were traveling around southern Ireland.  What a fascinating place! It was, perhaps, the most interesting factory tour I've ever taken.  Each piece of Waterford crystal is hand made and the workers serve a 10 year apprenticeship before they actually begin to work.  The cutters have to memorize hundreds of designs and hold them in their head -- they cut from memory, not from any sort of pattern.

The tour starts in the glass blowing room, which is a show all unto itself.  A team of guys working with red hot molten glass are waving these balls around seemingly inches from each other, molding the glass into shapes. 

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The glass is so hot that if I recall correctly it takes two days for it to cool down to a temperature where it can be handled safely with bare hands.

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The most fascinating part of the tour, of course, was going through the cutting room.  I sat there fascinated watching this whole room full of men all intently cutting glass, while the lead-laden powder from the glass piled up around the table and onto the floor at their feet.  Literally little piles of glass dust all over the place.  If I'm remembering correctly from the tour, Waterford has the highest percentage of lead of any crystal.

Do you notice anything interesting?

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No face mask.  All these guys lined up at work tables, breathing this fine glass dust and very few wore face masks.

At the conclusion of our tour, we had the opportunity to meet with a cutter and ask questions and I asked about that.  It turns out that (at least at that time--perhaps things are different now) Ireland had no safety requirements and yes, the cutters were had health insurance.  BUT, if they wore face masks and got sick, they were covered; if they chose not to wear face masks, they were not.  The guy did not know of any statistics of lead poisoning among glass cutters in the Waterford factory, but I can't believe that it's not very high, given what I saw in the cutting room.

I own one or two pieces of Waterford crystal, which have been given to me as gifts, but we never bought anything while at the factory because it was just too damn expensive.  Still, Waterford has become such a "name" in the world of fine crystal that it's sad to see that this company, too, is a victim of the bad economic times.



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