Behind the Scenes at NovaScotian Crystal

NovaScotian Crystal showroomWatching the craftsmen at NovaScotian Crystal take material from molten goop to a sparkling piece of fine crystal is mesmerizing. When the weather allows they open up the door to the glassworks and you can see these master craftsmen at work right from the boardwalk.

Ever since the shop opened up on the Halifax waterfront in 1996, I’ve made a point to stop and watch the spinning, shiny, hypnotic process every time I’m there when the doors are open. It’s one of the iconic images of the Halifax waterfront for me.

So when Larissa Law, NovaScotian Crystal’s Marketing & PR Coordinator, offered to give me a behind-the-scenes tour I didn’t just jump at the chance – I drove 826 kms round trip to make it happen.

at the front door of NovaScotian Crystal

Cooling a rum glass while tourists of all ages look on (it’ll be a few years before that little one gets one of these!)

From the front doors (when they’re open), anyone can see one of the two teams blowing crystal, and that’s where my tour started.

The process starts with a secret recipe – seriously! – of raw materials (called batch) that’s mixed with crystal recycled from the bits discarded during the creation process (called cullet) and heated up to a whopping 1420 degrees Celsius.

Then they lower the temperature to 1360 degrees Celsius, which is the working temperature.

The NovaScotian Crystal Glass Blowers

The craftsmen in the glassworks at Nova Scotian Crystal

The glassworks at NovaScotian Crystal

Each craftsman apprentices for years and focuses on becoming an expert in a specific part of the process.

Anthony (in the red shirt), for example, started training at the age of 15 and he takes the first gather from the pot of molten crystal. It sounds easy, but he has to know how much to gather, how to shape and how to mold it so that it will support the piece as it goes through the rest of the process. Without that first gather, Larissa explained, they wouldn’t be able to make anything large.

Anthony blows the first gather of crystal from the pot.

The focus of each person in the glassworks is incredible. The care and pride each of these craftsmen takes with their work is palpable, but it goes further – I’ve rarely met a marketing person who is so deeply proud to be a part of the company she represents as Larissa.

Watching all the glass blowers at work, I finally realised why I enjoy watching this process so much, and why I never hesitate to tell visitors to stop by.

I’ve rarely seen people who are so focused on and invested in what they’re doing right at this moment, especially at work. Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about the future, or the “big picture” or just kind of wishing we were somewhere other than work. But here, I get the sense that in the moment, they’re not thinking about much else other than the shape, quality, and temperature of the piece of crystal at the end of that iron rod.

It’s very relaxing to watch.

The constant spinning is part of the hypnosis too – the blowers need to keep the crystal spinning as it cools to make sure that the final piece is evenly rounded. If they didn’t, the crystal would droop as gravity pulled it out of shape as it cooled.

The day I was there, there were two teams blowing crystal – the one you see above was blowing rum glasses, and the other was creating stemware.

You can get a sense from the video below of how many steps there are and the precision required in the process of creating stemware – no wonder master craftsman Jack takes on this role!

After the items are made and cooled to the appropriate temperature – the craftsmen can tell this by the colour of the crystal – they’re placed in an annealing oven which holds the temperature steady at 400 degrees Celsius until the end of the day.

As each piece travelled by us on its way to the annealing oven, I could feel the heat radiating form it – and these were the pieces that had cooled down already! Then the temperature is slowly reduced overnight. The slow and steady cooling stabilizes the crystal – without annealing, the crystal would simply shatter.

Cutting the Designs

After the crystal has annealed, the sharp edges are polished and it’s ready for the design.

A crystal class with the design cut, but before the chemical polishing bath.

A crystal class with the design cut, but before the chemical polishing bath.

One of the differences between glass and crystal, Larissa explained, is that the lead in crystal allows it to be soft enough to take the cutting of the design with a nice crisp edge.

Again, there’s a wealth of skill at work here. A basic grid is marked on the glass with a sharpie, but the design is cut from memory.

NovaScotian Crystal

Somehow, this wheel shows them how to mark the grid on the glass which somehow translates into beautiful and intricate designs. It’s kind of like magic.

Fascinating tidbit: The wheel that cuts the designs on the crystal will not hurt you. Proof at the end of the video below!

Traditional Methods, Nova Scotian passion

The company deliberately sticks to the traditional ways of blowing crystal – no automation here. These pieces are handcrafted from start to finish: from the glassblowers, to the polishing, the cutting of the design, and the final inspection, every step is done by a human being with years of experience. That’s one of the reasons the company was started – to preserve the traditional way of crystal making at a time when many companies were switching to an automated process.

The viewing window at Nova Scotian Crystal, open year-round

During the winter months, or anytime the weather is bad and the doors to the glassworks aren’t open, just pop inside to see the craftsmen at work

NovaScotian Crystal started with craftsmen from Ireland’s renowned Waterford Crystal but while they’ve held on to the traditional methods, they’re also an emphatically Nova Scotian company and now have four Canadian craftsmen and six Canadian apprentices working with the six Irish craftsmen.

Each of their designs was inspired by Nova Scotian places and history. Some are very specific – the Titanic pattern was “inspired by the actual light fixtures in the liner’s first class cabins” – and some are more existential – the Luna pattern is inspired by the phases of the moon and its connection to the tides that have a profound influence on much of the province.

The showroom sparkles in a most entrancing way.

I had a difficult time leaving without buying one of everything. The seafarer’s rum glass (designed with input both from rum aficionados and sailors) and the Luna pattern are both on my list, though!

NSCrystalblog3The company briefly went into receivership in early 2013 as it switched ownership, and it’s not a topic they’re keen to focus on for obvious reasons. As I pointed out to Larissa, though, the fact that people still ask about it says a lot about the sense of pride Nova Scotians take in the company. The loss, however temporary, of this company was felt by many not as the loss of some jobs but as the loss of an iconic product and experience.

Larissa explained that the company is in a strong financial position now, but in the end, you need to look no further than the employees to know how the company is doing now.

The skill and focus of the craftsmen and the genuine pride and sense of ownership Larissa displayed give me hope that this company will be blowing glass on the Halifax waterfront for many years to come.

Nova Scotian Crystal - a fixture on the halifax waterfront

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