Cumbria Crystal - the brand favoured by blockbuster movies, top TV shows, diplomats and royalty,
PUBLISHED: 10:48 08 February 2016 | UPDATED: 17:23 08 February 2016
Luxury brand celebrates its 40th anniversary. Sandy Kitching reports
They’ve graced the tables at British embassy dinners and state banquets worldwide and they’ve been seen sparkling on the set of blockbuster films and television series.
But not many people know that one of Britain’s last remaining producers of hand-blown, hand-cut full-lead English crystal is on our doorsteps in the old Lancashire town of Ulverston.
It was 40 years ago that Lord and Lady Cavendish were having dinner in the grand surrounds of their dining room at Holker Hall when they came up with the idea of opening a glassmaking business. Cumbria Crystal was born and since then the company’s products have provided elegance and style to the dining tables of the rich and famous.
Not only did Lord and Lady Cavendish establish a new business in Ulverston, they also helped to secure the future of the English glassmaking tradition. Since 1976 Cumbria Crystal has become a leading international brand, favoured by royalty across the globe.
The business produces crystal for all the British embassies and residencies across the world, gracing formal dinners and state occasions and it is stocked by leading retailers such as Linley, Thomas Goode, Fortnum and Mason and Heals.
The company has also been asked to supply exquisite crystal glasses to numerous television and film sets, including the James Bond movies, where cheap imitations just wouldn’t cut it. Daniel Craig can be seen in Casino Royale quaffing whiskey from a glass made in Ulverston. And the Grasmere Collection, designed by Lady Cavendish, has been seen by millions on the Edwardian dining table in internationally acclaimed TV drama Downton Abbey. It is still the company’s most popular traditional pattern with a large wine goblet retailing for £85 and a decanter £305.
Although the business is thriving, with a workforce of 21, the directors want further development and a driving force behind that ambition is Chris Blade, who became managing director last year.
‘I was Head of Commissioning, Enterprise and the Studios at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland,’ said Chris, who is also a highly respected and accomplished glass artist. ‘I was involved in implementing major changes, but after five years I was ready for a new challenge.’
Chris Blade, managing director, in the glassworks
Heather Gillespie cutting glass on the diamond wheel
Heather Gillespie teaching Junko Eager, who had travelled from Scotland to attend the Glass Cutting course
Expert glass engraver, Heather Gillespie
Cumbria Crystals Master Glass Engraver, Neil Yates teaching Trainee, Charlotte Hudson
Sandy Kitching created these glasses from her own designs on the Creative Sandblasting course
The stunning dining room at Holker Hall
He may only have been in post at Ulverston a few months, but Chris has already started implementing new and innovative ideas.
‘Many people don’t realise that Cumbria Crystal is one of the last remaining producers of luxury hand-blown and hand-cut full lead crystal in the country,‘ he said. ‘Each piece is made by a dedicated, small team of highly skilled artisans and it takes years for them to develop the traditional skills needed to create pieces that meet our exceptionally high standards.’
Chris said it took around three weeks, six separate production processes and numerous quality checks before a piece of crystal can be passed as First Quality ready to sparkle at formal dinners and state occasions. It means the skilled staff are highly valued.
‘We have invested in training and development for all our artisans and we are keen to bring on apprentices,’ he said. ‘I have just secured a research and development grant from for an experimental furnace, which we will use to create new types of lead-free glass.’ These new products will include upmarket bottles for luxury spirits.
Watching crystal being created with a combination of sand, raw energy and incredible skill is a mesmerising experience.
‘We welcome locals and tourists to come and watch our engravers at work and to observe the alchemy of glass blowing, using techniques that have changed little since Roman times,’ Chris said. ‘But I was surprised to find how few local people know we are even here, so that needs to be addressed.’
Chris has spent the last few months reviewing every aspect of the business and he is working with final year business and marketing students from Lancaster University on a six-month project to devise a promotional strategy.
‘A new, more interactive, website is currently under construction and we are all embracing the power of Twitter and social media,’ he said. ‘I am also working with the community and we support local charities and sponsors events, providing trophies for Cartmel Races and the Heart of Ulverston awards.’
This year, on selected weekends, people interested in learning more can book onto a fascinating one-day course in Creative Sandblasting or Glass Cutting, with classes aimed at beginners, intermediate and advanced. All that’s required is good eyesight and a steady pair of hands.
Cumbria Crystal’s master glass engraver, Neil Yates, and expert engraver, Heather Gillespie, will guides students through the use of a variety of cutting machines with rapidly rotating diamond wheels to decorate hi-ball glass tumblers.
Participants take away around two to three pieces of Cumbria Crystal adorned with their designs. They also leave with a far greater understanding of the complexities involved in making a perfect piece.
Since he started in the job, Chris and his wife, Katya, haven’t had much spare time to explore the countryside and they hope to put that right in 2016. However, they already have some plans for nights in. ‘I will be checking the TV for the second series of Poldark to see Cumbria Crystal pieces on the set!’ laughed Chris.
For course details visit: cumbriacrystal.com