Saturday, July 18, 2015

"Dark Crystal: The Secrets of Swarovski"

Pray you don't develop a Swarovski habit.
I remember, back in the day, one of the first-gen Hong Kong billionaires saying that gambling was the addiction he feared his children developing. Drugs and sex had natural limits, either you have to regulate it or you run out of time or you die  but if the scion was a losing gambler he could piss away the entire family fortune.

He had apparently never seen what Swarovski did to some people.

Okay, I'm kidding, but for some reason the Swarovski aficionados can get very enthusiastic.

From Atlas Obscura:
There are gems, there are crystals, and then there’s Swarovski.

The improbably successful Austrian crystal manufacturer is the epitome of shopping mall luxury. It sounds foreign, exclusive, precious. Yet you can buy a pair of Swarovski earrings from Amazon for $17.60. The same total carat weight in diamonds, in a very similar setting, would cost you somewhere north of $5,000, depending on quality and provenance.

Swarovski makes glass and yet the company has managed to create for itself a brand that carries weight in the luxury world, something no other manufacturer of non-gems has ever even tried. How in the world did that happen?

A kind of glass Bambi.
Swarovski, which celebrates its 120-year anniversary this year, is a steward of a centuries-old Bohemian tradition, making use of natural resources in the Czech Republic and Austria. It’s a phenomenally innovative design studio and an impressively creative chemical laboratory, all in one. And, of course, it’s the beneficiary of absolutely genius marketing.

Swarovski doesn’t talk about their process. They won’t tell anyone what they do to the glass, how they make it. But everyone agrees that Swarovski’s lead glass is the best that’s ever been made.

“Glass-making, of course, is a very very ancient technique,” says Stefanie Walker, a jewelry historian who works for the National Endowment for the Humanities and teaches at the Bard Graduate Center (among other places).

To talk about Swarovski, she says, we have to first talk about sand. Sand is primarily composed of silica, which properly is called silicon dioxide. You make glass by melting sand and other chemicals. Sand melts at 3090°F, so some of those chemicals, as you might expect, are used to lower that melting point to make the whole process a bit easier. Others are used for stability, to ensure the glass won’t dissolve in water, and for various aesthetic reasons.

Glass is not a crystal; as science teachers like to say, glass is a particular type of liquid, so its internal structure is all a jumble. A crystal, like quartz, has a very strict molecular structure that allows it to grow, almost like connecting Lego blocks. To cut a true crystal, you have to “cleave” it, lop it off, at a weak point. To continue the Lego comparison, if you wanted to reduce or reshape a Lego construction, you wouldn’t attempt to break an individual block; you’d have to remove blocks where they connect to other blocks. That’s why gems have a particular array of shapes: creating a spherical diamond has become kind of an engineering challenge, because the crystal simply does not cut that way.

Glass is more like a popsicle. It’ll hold its shape, but you can make that shape whatever you’d like, and can change that shape by melting and reforming it whenever you’d like. Cutting glass can be tricky, but it doesn’t work the same way cutting crystals does....MORE