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Stew Cues: Handling costly, fragile crystal can be terrifying

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Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

I recently helped outfit a yacht with glassware. The owners found a beautiful set of antique cobalt blue Baccarat glasses. Service for 12 included 84 pieces consisting of water glasses, red and white wine glasses, champagne coupes, port glasses, and bowls with underliners. The price was $45,000. I was terrified they would purchase them. Even more alarming than the $500 per glass was the fact that they were made in the 1920s and it would be impossible to replace any breakage. In the end, they bought the set but had it shipped to their home, where it would be much safer than on a moving vessel.

Glass has been around for about 5,000 years and was first made in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In the early years, it was opaque and made to look like precious stones. Jewelry, ornaments and funerary goods were commissioned under the patronage of the royal family as gifts for powerful persons. Wine and other alcoholic beverages were probably part of ritualistic ceremonies, and the footed wine cup was one of the first examples of drinking glasses.

When transparent glass was invented, production spread throughout Europe. By the 13th century, the glassware industry was well-developed. Venice, Italy, became the center of the glass trade. More and more glass houses were opening, and the threat of fire in the wood-framed buildings of the city pushed glass production to the island of Murano. This assured the secrecy of new glass techniques.

By 1600, French and German glass manufacturing was underway. Germans added improvements in methods, and the English contributed by adding lead oxide. English glassmaker George Ravenscroft invented the first lead crystal with its characteristic sparkle, weight and ring.

Across the pond in America, most people could not afford glassware, so drinkware was made from pewter and wood. The first U.S. glass factory was built in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608, and in 1825 the Sandwich Glass factory opened in Cape Cod. Glass tableware then became affordable for many Americans.

Crystal is a type of glass. Adding lead to glass makes it easier to manipulate and design. Full lead crystal must have at least 24 percent lead oxide. Today manufacturers are promoting non-lead crystal, due to the health risks associated with lead. Both types of crystal are made with sand, soda ash, and limestone with barium oxide added in place of lead. Both types look similar, but lead crystal is the only true crystal, while non-lead crystal is really a brilliant form of glass Fine crystal glassware is fragile and beautiful, and requires careful handling.

Here are some tips:

  • Food and beverages should not be stored in crystal containers for long periods of time, or staining may occur.
  • Use mild soap and warm water to wash glass. Put a towel or mat into the sink and be careful not to chip items on the faucet. Dry with a soft cloth to prevent water spotting. Hold by the bowl and not the stem to dry. Store glasses upright to protect the rim from breakage.
  • Avoid drastic temperature changes. Hot liquids should not be poured into a cold crystal container or cold liquids into hot crystal – the temperature change could crack it. Crystal should not go into a microwave, oven or freezer.
  • Crystal is not dishwasher safe. Some dishwashers have crystal and china settings, and some manufacturers say their glasses are dishwasher safe, but be very careful if you decide to put crystal into the dishwasher. The heat of the drying cycle may cause cracks. Also, most dishwasher detergents are corrosive and may interact with the crystal to cause cloudiness.
  • White vinegar may remove or diminish spots or haziness, but if that doesn’t work, the crystal can be taken to a glass company for an acid bath to restore brilliance. Chipped crystal can be taken to a glass house or, in some cases, jewelers for professional grinding.

Glass is a magical medium, full of history and meaning. Remember that pieces are carefully chosen and may have emotional as well as financial significance. It is up to the stews to make sure things are cared for properly.

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She shares more than 20 years experience as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht,” available at yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome below.

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