Antique crystal has been treasured by owners and graced tables for more than 400 years and its story is just as sparkling today. Collecting stemware takes some research and time to learn the basics, but the results will be unmatched.
Glass does have not the same chemical make up as crystal: fine crystal is glass to which lead has been added for sparkle, and strength. Although people sometimes think of lead crystal as heavy (which it can be), lead also makes the glass strong enough to be spun or molded into thin shapes and remain resilient.
Stemware comes in many shapes, and glasses are described by the shape of the bowl (which holds the liquid), the stem (which supports the bowl) and base or foot. Some examples are:
- Baluster, which has a stem that gets thicker near the foot
- Bucket bowl, a wide mouthed container
- Air twist stems, which were designed to make the piece lighter, and therefore be taxed less (glass was taxed by weight)
- Facet cuts, the flat sections cut away on the stems
- Knopped (or knobbed) stems, which have bulbs or protuberances on the stems (and which made the glasses easier to hold)
Examples and Values
Crystal stemware can also be cut, etched, engraved, and enameled, and it has long been desired for its sparkle. Antique examples (100+ years) were made by many glass companies throughout the U.S. and Europe (England, Ireland, France, Spain, Holland, and others). The older, highly decorated examples can have values beginning at $1,000 and topping $4,000 or more - per glass!
The most famous crystal stemware may come from Waterford, with its sparkling crystal and rhythmic patterns, while the American brilliant period (1880s until World War I) was known for the "bright" crystal glass and elaborate cuts and decorations. Glass produced after World War I is considered vintage, and during the 20th century, antique crystal stemware was made by many companies, including Cambridge.
Where to Find Antique Stemware
Just about every vintage or antiques shop carries stemware, and there are thousands of patterns to choose from for your collection. But a few outstanding resources are:
Ruby Lane, the online antique mall, has a continually changing listing of antique and vintage stemware. Recent offerings included mid-19th-century air twist wine goblets for $195 the pair.
1stdibs carries moderately priced high-end pieces, including stemware. You can find complete sets here, like a Val St Lambert Pampre D'Or 23-piece wine crystal stemware set which was originally listed for $3,800.
One Kings Lane is another multi-dealer website, where you can search thousands of offerings. An Art Deco (which is vintage, but not antique) etched wine set could be purchased for $125.
Laurie Leigh Antiques specializes in 18th and 19th century English and Irish pieces, including crystal stemware.
Scottish Antiques is world-renowned for their Georgian and Regency glass and stemware and their website is like visiting a particularly lovely museum.
Antiques Atlas is the United Kingdom's online mall for antiques and collectibles where this pair of rummers was offered.
Replacements is the granddaddy of china and glassware warehouses, and it lists thousands of pieces of vintage and antique crystal stemware for sale. You can also take advantage of their free identification service.
To find local shops that specialize in antique crystal stemware, start with your state's (or country's) antiques dealers associations. Call your tourism department and ask about maps for "antiquing" or check with a local antiques mall: they often have listings of other malls in the region, so you can make a day of it.
When searching online for antique crystal, remember that "stemware" is a very specific description and if a dealer does not use it, you may be out of luck. Try other words, like "wineglass," or "goblets," or "footed glasses" (which suggests a stem as well).
Identifying Crystal Stemware
There are several methods for identifying crystal stemware, but they vary in accuracy. The best way is to first identify the pattern and the manufacturer, but if those are unknown try the following to see if what you have is crystal and not glass:
- pleasant pinging noise, while glass will thunk.
- Hold the glass up to the light: crystal may refract the light and create a prism effect of rainbows, while glass will not.
- Crystal will often feel heavier than glass, but it despite this, the rims on stemware may be thinner.
- Look carefully for marks, which can help to identify individual manufacturers. You can refer to collector's guides for cut glass or stemware and to guides for specific manufacturers. Some marks are molded, others are stamped or etched with acid (Waterford, for example).
- Bohemian crystal (often colored and enameled) has been reproduced in quantity, so be careful when purchasing. A recent guide notes that glass cutters may leave an untreated cut in the piece (which will appear cloudy) so a buyer will know the piece is Bohemian, and not a cheaper copy from China.
- Goblets are not sherbet glasses, water and wine don't always mix : by identifying the shape you may be able to determine the glass's use which will help in identification.
It is difficult to identify crystal stemware manufacturers who made glass between the 17th and 19th centuries. But by the 1820s, companies started to manufacture crystal stemware in large quantities, and a century later, millions of glasses were produced in the U.S. and Europe each year. Looking for marks can be frustrating, but Great Glass has U.S. and European stemware markings. Some of the best-known companies include:
- Baccarat has manufactured luxury crystal since 1822. Its marks include etchings, molded marks, and labels, so look carefully before you buy - or sell - your glass.
- Fostoria, in business 1887 to 1986, was among the premier crystal and glass companies and well known for depression glass and crystal. You can see many of their marks at the Glass Lovers Glass Database.
- Gorham was founded in Rhode Island in 1831, and although it established itself as a silverware company, it also produces china and stemware and is sought after by collectors. Pieces may be marked with labels or stamps.
- Heisey wasn't in business very long (1890s to 1950s) but the company was an important manufacturer of crystal; they used a diamond H mark, but it can be difficult to locate on stemware.
- Lenox was founded in 1889 and has a tradition of producing colorful crystal stemware for the table. They used printed marks and labels.
- Waterford has been in the business of making crystal and stemware since 1783. Look for their famous etched mark and labels.
Caring for Antique Crystal
Antique crystal is beautiful, but it takes some special care. Preserve it for the future by caring for it properly.
- Handwash with mild soap and never use the dishwasher.
- Keep a folded tea towel on the bottom of the sink when washing. This will protect the fragile crystal from chips, nicks and breakage.
- Rinse in water to which a little white vinegar has been added to give the crystal even more sparkle.
- Dry with a soft towel and put away immediately.
- Never put your crystal in a window or other place where extremes of temperature occur: crystal is strong, but constant expansion and contraction from heat and cold can crack the glass.
Set a Beautiful Table
Heirloom crystal is a delicate legacy and should be shared from generation to generation. The story of your antique stemware reaches across the centuries and can make your table settings rich in history as well as rich in beauty.