IF you ever want to meet a person who is totally in love with his craft, you would do well to wander into Cork Crystal and meet George Duggan.
When he talks of his passion for glass design and cutting, there’s no hint of suffering for his art, just joy: “Oh, I just love it, but shur, I can’t do anything else, like — it’s just brilliant!”
A proud history of glass making in Cork dates back to the 1780s. Several glass and crystal houses were in existence at its peak, much of the fine crystal and glass made at Waterloo Glass House near Blarney — glass that is now considered extremely rare.
Cork Crystal was established 35 years ago by George’s father, Tony Duggan who sadly passed away last year.
“Dad was an architect and an artist and had a keen eye for nice things,” says George. “He started the factory in the ’80s at a tough time when glass was a luxury product. Waterford of course was well established, but Dad had a vision and he just went for it.
“Dad never cut glass, but he loved design and wanted to marry the two together. Eddie Flahavan was an ex-Waterford lad operating Kerry Crystal from Crosshaven. Dad said to Eddie ‘I’ll push and develop the thing if you do the cutting’. Dad managed to get Eddie some apprentices and a couple of lads down from Cavan Crystal at the time, and off they went!”
Cork Crystal is 33% lead glass. It is heavy, has presence and sparkles beautifully.
There is very little glass blowing that takes place now in Ireland, a craft on the edge of extinction.
“You’d have to be turning out an awful lot of glass to justify a glass blowing operation these days,” says George. “All the fine 33% lead crystal glass is made for me by Waterford Glass, mouth-blown into moulds and to my specification and design. I design all the glass that we sell, and everything is cut by hand by me, 100% made in Ireland.
“Cork Crystal, without doubt, is the world’s best glass at the moment. As it stands there are small glass houses that all draw from the same pot: Kinsale Glass, that’s a super glass, Dingle, Waterford Heritage (different from Waterford Crystal), and a guy in Kilkenny. We’re all small, tidy operations, and without doubt there is no glass better than it being made today.
“Younger generations don’t realise that the glass sitting in their grandmother’s cabinet would be very hard to get now.
“People will walk into a shop in town and get six glasses for €60 thinking that it’s crystal, but that’s not crystal because a full lead crystal glass will cost around €75!
“Americans love our crystal, they know what is and isn’t the real deal. They come in here, god knows how they find me, have a look and they can tell by the angle of the wheel, by the colour — they just know quality glass. People just don’t know what crystal or what handmade glass is anymore.”
And here’s the paradox. At a time when people seem more than happy to pay a premium for a handmade object, a piece of unique art or artisan food, and accept it, the one area where this doesn’t seem to have caught on is with handmade glass.
“People want perfectly clear glass, and handmade glass is never perfectly clear. You have curve marks, little seed bubbles, visible spin marks and lines from the blowing. It’s like trying to compare a photo and a painting.
“I see people looking at the glass and pointing out the differences — but that’s the beauty of it, and I’m blue in the face from saying it to people! If it’s perfectly symmetrical, it’s not human made, simple.
“That’s why all the small glass houses are scaled back to one to two man operations. There would have been 12 people working here once, and we would have been producing a fair bit of glass. But I kind of like it now the way it’s gone, it feels more like the craft that it is; a small little community now of craftspeople, and we have to be versatile with our style of cutting. It evolves then — all the skills merging together with a different style coming out of that again.”
“I like making pieces that I know are going to be used regularly, but I prefer form over function: a prettier shape over a more practical one. When you’re holding a wine glass in your hand, it has to feel like an attractive thing. It has to feel right in the hand. A third of the crystal is lead, a heavy metal, so you get the feeling that it is a substantial piece.
“Take gin glasses: a high ball glass has always been the classic gin glass, but now it’s this goblet shape that everyone wants. There is something discreet and classy about the high ball glass, but at the same time the goblet is a bit of fun and frivolity. Both great but very different.
“In the ’80s, wine glasses were conical but now the bulbous shaped glasses for wine are popular. The same with champagne: everyone wants flutes but I love wide-rimmed saucer champagne glasses. You could see the bubbles going mad inside the glass and they looked beautiful, a really classy shape. I’ve stopped cutting the saucer champagne glasses now because no one wants them.”
Above the shop is where all the design and cutting happens. The space is open and flooded with natural light. Hanging from a rafter are a guitar and a banjo. The loft is dotted about with various machines, but despite their size they are simply morotised spinning wheels — basic, rudimentary, putting into sharp contrast the cutter’s skill at the wheel bringing life to the glass designs.
George points to one in particular: “I’ve been cutting on that machine since the ’80s, a Spatzier. The first piece of glass I ever cut was on that machine and I cut about 95% of my glass with it. It must be from the ’50s, I suppose, precision engineered — can you imagine how many million times that wheel has spun!”
It’s a serene space, despite the heavy machinery.
“When I’m cutting here, the whirr on the machine going, it’s very calming — I couldn’t be happier, that’s the truth! It is hard work, physical work, but you can’t treat it as if it’s a job. You have to have passion for it, and a love of it. It’s no good coming into work thinking ‘Oh here we go again’ because it’ll show in the work you’re putting out too.”
His signature cut is a flowing opaque star design.
“In 100 years’ time, if a piece like this comes up on the antiques roadshow, it’s my work — nobody has cut this design in that way but me.”
George picks up a piece of crystal he has been restoring.
“This is one of my own pieces, I think I probably cut it in the ’90s. I can tell from every piece what stage of Cork Crystal a piece was cut, and I’d have a fair idea of who would have cut it too just by looking at it! But it’s because I’ve always been here, even if it was just checking a finished piece.
At a recent civic reception at the Lord Mayor’s office, George noticed a large collection of Cork Crystal: pieces he would have cut just a couple of months ago and others that were made in the early days.
“It took me right back and made me feel really proud. Dad used to have a folder of photographs, presentations of our crystal to famous people — Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, etc. Before he passed away I asked him where that folder was. He said he didn’t know, he hadn’t seen it in ages.
“He wasn’t sentimental about things like that, in his mind we’re making glass and that should be enough.”