How The Irish Handmade Glass Company rose from the ashes

Carol O’Callaghan discovers how Waterford’s most famous craft tradition is reborn and thriving once more. 

How The Irish Handmade Glass Company rose from the ashes

Funny, isn’t it, when something that appears to be a disaster can turn out to be a life-changing opportunity over time?

And one for the better, at that, for four ex-employees of Waterford Crystal.

Because that’s exactly what happened when the world-famous glass-maker — a mainstay of the local economy that employed more than 800 workers in the city — closed its doors.

It was the end of an era, the end of something synonymous with Irish-ness, something that represented Irish craft and skill at its best. And that it should cease to exist, despite its popularity, came as a shock — but for the employees and the city of Waterford, it was far worse. Livelihoods disappeared overnight.

One of those affected was master glass-blower Tony Hayes, who started as an apprentice at the factory in 1987, following in the footsteps of his father, who worked there as a master engraver for 42 years.

Shortly before the doors closed, however, Tony had left — but only just.

“I jumped on the 19th of December, 2008, but others were still there when it closed in the January,” he says.

For those with the specialist skills of a glass-maker, there were no alternative opportunities, not just in the city of Waterford but nationwide, with much of Ireland’s glass production already being shipped abroad in the interests of cost efficiency. It was a massive blow for 870 workers, who found themselves unemployed and without any financial buffer.

“Redundancy had been agreed,” says Tony, “but later reneged on.”

While Tony and a few of his ex-colleagues were on a FS course, they started talking about doing something together.

“We were learning to drive fork-lift trucks,” he says, “but saw a market for making coloured glass.”

So they produced an outline business plan. “We got help from the Enterprise Board and brought in ex-sales people from Waterford Crystal, so we had all-round expertise in sales and finance,” Tony explains.

January 2010 saw the beginning of The Irish Handmade Glass Company, continuing 200 years of glass-making in Waterford. A year later, they produced their first piece — a clear centrepiece bowl with flower cuts.

Tony quips that they’ve kept it all in the family; he and his colleagues — fellow master glass-blowers Derek Smith and Richard Rowe and master glass-cutter Danny Murphy — prioritise employing ex-Waterford Crystal staff.

“From time to time we take some guys off the social welfare and we’re hoping to take on apprentices in the future,” says Tony.

These will be the first such apprenticeships in Waterford for almost 30 years. Tony’s was one of the last when he began, at a time when there were 650 glass blowers in Waterford alone. Today, there are around 25 in the entire country.

Their products include everything from centrepieces and vases to paperweights and glasses, with a contemporary design aesthetic and emphasis on colour. Affordable prices saw the business turn a profit last year and it is on track to do the same this year, helped by a lucky marketing break that came about when a representative of American shopping channel QVC saw the products at a trade show.

It now means that Tony has been a guest on the channel for the last three years, including St Patrick’s Day just last week.

“They put in an order in January with us,” says Tony, “and have 20 hours of Irish products.”

Tourists are the other major customer base, which informed the decision to base the business in Henrietta St, right in the heart of the historic Viking Triangle. A shamrock bauble costs just €19.95 and can be carried home in luggage with ease.

At the higher end of the scale, artisan centrepieces cost between €300 and €400, but beautiful drinking glasses from the Wild Heather series, delicately etched to show the fine training the makers received at Waterford Crystal, cost less than €60 a pair.

Tony returns to QVC’s Philadelphia headquarters this summer. “I’ll be doing Christmas gifts in July,” he quips. It all sounds very glamorous. “We’re not millionaires yet,” he says with a twinkle. He and his colleagues have certainly come a long way from FS and forklifts.

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