If you’ve ever attended a lavish wedding reception or other large, formal events, you might recall a tinkly ringing sound mixed in with the clatter of dishes, voices and laughter. That subtle musicality is the sound of crystal glasses dinging dishes and other glass or guests tapping them. If the glasses weren’t crystal, however, you won’t recall a clear ringing sound—just clinks. But what is crystal glass, and what makes it so special?
What Is Crystal Glass?
Despite the name, crystal glass isn’t made from crystal. “Crystal” refers to the molecular structure of materials such as salt, sugar, snowflakes and graphite (used in pencils), as well as diamonds, sapphires and most metals.
Crystal glass is more accurately called “crystal-like glass” or lead crystal. It’s similar to ordinary glass that’s made from sand and other ingredients such as soda ash (sodium carbonate) and limestone and melted at high temperatures. Calcium oxide is another element of glass mixtures.
Although the sand often used to make glass is composed of tiny quartz crystals called silica, the quartz loses its crystalline structure when it’s melted. The mixture becomes amorphous, which means it’s lacking a specific structure. As a comparison, imagine a quartz crystal necklace and a polymer clay pendant.
The difference—and what makes vintage crystal glass special— is that lead oxide is traditionally added to the sand-soda-limestone mix of glass. This creates a lower melting temperature and more flexibility which allows artisans to create thinner, stronger glass. It also adds the shine that ordinary glass can’t have plus those lovely rainbows you can see as the crystal refracts light.
In recent years, barium and zinc, along with other ingredients, have replaced lead. However, since lead was initially used to create a stronger, more attractive type of glass, the term “lead crystal” is still used, especially since vintage glasses and other crystal items contain it. Similarly, it’s commonly accepted to call crystal-like glass “crystal glass” or simply “crystal,” and that’s why we use it.
What Are the Differences Between Crystal Vintage Glasses and Ordinary Glasses?
If you place a crystal wine glass next to an ordinary but high-quality wine glass with similar cutting, how would they differ? Even if they’re styled in similar ways, you don’t have to be an expert to see the differences. You just have to take your time and know what to look for whether in photos or in person.
Keep in mind that glass and crystal glass composition varies just as glass-making techniques and styles differ. Plus, no two glasses—one made of crystal and one made of ordinary glass—are identically styled. That said, these differences hold true in general.
The Crystal Glass
- Appears thinner overall, especially at the rim
- Has a distinct shine and clarity
- Bends or refracts light, creates colors and often prisms and may seem to sparkle
- Has more detailed or complex cuts that may appear buffed or soft
The Ordinary Glass
- Appears thicker, especially in the rim
- Has less clarity and may appear cloudy or have a tint of blue or green
- Does not bend or refract light, create colors or prisms or sparkle
- Has less complex cuts that may seem sharp or rigid
The Crystal Glass
- Feels heavy for its size or compared to the ordinary glass if both have about the same mass
- Makes a ringing sound that may seem to echo when tapped with a knife or flicked with a finger
- Creates a musical sound when you trace around the rim with a wet finger
The Ordinary Glass
- Feels light for its size or in comparison to the crystal glass if both have about the same mass
- Makes a brief clinking sound that may have a slight musical tone when tapped or flicked but doesn’t ring or echo
- Does not make a musical sound when you trace around the rim with a wet finger
Popular Brands of Crystal
Some of the most famous brands of crystal include Waterford and Swarovski among many others. The high quality and luxurious beauty mean high prices, especially for vintage and antique glasses. Even so, you can find bargains occasionally, especially in estate sales.
But how do you know it’s real?
Waterford crystal glassware (since 1950) is stamped with a tiny company logo under the base of each glass. Older Waterford crystal and vintage glasses also carry an etched logo and the words Waterford Crystal in an old-fashioned script.
Swarovski crystal carries several different types of logos including an Edelweiss flower and a swan. However, some Swarovski crystal glasses bear no logo at all.
Other brands such as Fostoria, Gorham and Heisey are not as well known, but you’re lucky if you have or find their crystal and vintage wine glasses.
Is It Safe To Drink From Vintage Glasses Made of Lead Crystal?
ou’ve probably heard that lead is a serious health hazard, especially for children and pregnant women. In the last few decades of the 20th century, many countries including the U.S. banned lead from paint, plumbing, consumer products, furniture, toys and many other items.
What does that mean for lead crystal? Is it safe?
Authorities in Canada and the United States agree that occasional eating and drinking from lead crystal glassware is safe. The lead leached from crystal during a meal or evening is negligible. It’s a problem only when food or beverages are stored in lead crystal glassware, especially for long periods. Although it’s safe for most people, pregnant women and children should not use lead crystal glassware for eating or drinking.
If you’re concerned, enjoy lead crystal for its undeniable quality and beauty and investigate lead-free crystal glass options.