Why gulp your whiskey in a recycled mustard jar, when auction prices for vintage European crystal can have you sipping in style? Second-hand glassware can, however, sometimes look disturbingly ‘cloudy’. Is the glass ‘diseased’ or just ‘dirty’? If it’s simply oxidation sickness, get out grandma’s denture cleaner, an electric toothbrush and get to work; but if the crystal is ‘crizzled’, we are talking a terminal situation.
Crystal tumbler or mustard jar?
I am embarrassed to say that for years, if you asked for a scotch in my house, you were served in a recycled mustard glass. (You know the ones.) It was only when our daughter went to university in Scotland and began arriving for the holidays bearing distilled Highland gifts that I thought to invest in vintage tumblers to do justice to a vintaged whiskey.
To my surprise, I found auction prices in France for second-hand glassware (even prestigious names like Baccarat, Daum or Lalique) extremely reasonable, i.e. (14) water glasses, (11) red wine, (12) white wine, (8) champagne coupes and (2) carafes in Baccarat’s prestigious ‘Talleyrand’ design…100 euros.
It’s not that the flavor of the libation changes, but endulging in using vintage crystal daily is all about the aesthetics – and in these days of questionable taste (even at the highest levels), aesthetics might be all we have left!
The odds are indeed ‘in’.
In the current auction market for second-hand crystal, you can often pick up Lalique for the price of IKEA….especially if you can accept an odd number of pieces in the set, obviously the result of breakage. And why not? Only the rabidly superstitious limit their tippling partners to an even number.
So why aren’t most antique enthusiasts convinced of the aesthetic and economic virtues of vintage crystal? Auctioneers tell us that second-hand glassware is a very hard sell in any market.
“….second hand glassware looks cloudy and dirty.”
One factor which turns people away from buying second-hand crystal is the sale condition. Often those wedding gift Lalique champagne coupes have been stored in a dusty cupboard for decades… and they look it. The grime layer can achieve epic proportions here in France where auction dirt is a badge of historical commendation.
Does your champagne flute have the ‘flu’?
When contemplating an antique glass purchase, make an initial condition evaluation by running your finger over the glass to see if the dirt is surface or something more complicated. (Note: There are several dubious ploys used by some ‘less than honest’ vendors to mask cloudiness. If you see a carafe for sale with water in it, caution. Water masks milky glass giving it a clean appearance. While this guise can work for you at home in displaying a favorite cloudy decanter or vase to its advantage, it is a somewhat dodgy tactic in the antique market. Likewise a coating of vaseline jelly or cooking oil also disguises a cloudy appearance.)
Obviously, simple dust can be dealt with in a jiffy with dishwashing liquid and a linen dishtowel. There are, however, several more serious conditions referred to in the antique market as ‘sick glass’. So buyers beware:
Oxidation sickness – serious, but not hopeless.
These cloudy stains result from long duration exposure to liquids like wine, water or perfume. Similarly, thin milky coatings are the result of chemical deposits of carbonates, the result of too many spins in the dishwasher. (Interestingly, I know of a porcelaine expert who routinely runs her favored Limoges or Sevres pieces through the dishwasher – less abrasive than a hand scrub she says – but she always hand-washes her glass.)
In dealing with cloudy crystal, I have had real success soaking pieces overnight with a tab of denture cleaner or vinegar (the latter kinder to the glass, but a bit less effective). The next day, brush the milky stains on the glass with an electric toothbrush and common toothpaste (cheaper the better). For really stubborn clouding, I have even wrapped the brush head with a bit of very, very fine steel wool. I have also heard of using a mixture of rice and vinegar rubbed in a circular pattern over the incrusted surface or substituting the toothpaste for gels used to clean showers.
The entire process can be speeded up by using an extremely diluted concentration of hydrochloric acid. The latter method does necessitate, however, a familiarity with safety concerns for working with chemicals and the ability to convince your local chemical purveyor that you are not launching in the cocaine business. Better stick to toothpaste.
Obviously, the responsibility is yours – any of these cleaning methods are at your own risk, but I have had enough personal success revitalizing cloudy glassware to recommend looking at second hand crystal in a new light.
However, there is another type of ‘sick glass’ of which the buyer should beware……
‘Crizzling’ – a terminal glass situation.
Crizzling, or crackle sickness, is most commonly found in 16th to 18th century glassware. It is a problem usually of concern only to museum curators, but as I came across a likely 19th century ‘afflicted patient’ last week in a Paris auction, I thought it wise to mention. This type of glass sickness, best observed in a dark room with a bright light, looks like thousands of minute fractures over the glass surface, sometime reminiscent of tiny spider webs. In daylight, the glass object looks dull, grey and opaque.
Crizzling is caused by a deterioration of the physical structure of the glass, ‘devitrification’ as it is termed, the result of faulty glass formulas or manufacturing techniques. One infamous ‘crizzler’ is the English glassmaker, Ravenscroft. However, examples of crizzling have been found in European, American and East Asian glassware. Crizzling is a progressive disease and it is rumored that in the course of her lifetime, Queen Mary was able to observe the deterioration of certain glass items in the British Royal collection.
There is no cure, but it is possible to improve the appearance of this type of sick glass through a terribly expensive process only recommended for the rarest examples. Even still, as no treatment has been shown to be totally satisfactory, museums like the Corning Glass Museum (with over 300 crizzled objects) have decided to just ‘do nothing’ until conservation science provides an better answer.
It has been rumored (actually quite audibly by one of France’s glass experts) that within a cupboard, crizzling from one afflicted sick glass can be spread to healthy examples. It is clear that storage humidity levels are important. It is recommended to check your glass storage to make sure the space is not overly humid. If so, placing a simple dehumidifier tablet within the space can do the trick.
4 thoughts on “Vintage crystal: diseased or dirty?”
Superbly written, informative and witty as usual. “Chapeau”. All that pre-war Baccarat glassware I have in my cupboard I was thinking of selling – well I guess it will just stay put.
Wow, thank you Kristina for this most useful and entertaining article! I had no idea such deals were to be had in vintage glassware. I have always admired antique crystal and just assumed the real thing would be inaccessible. I wouldn’t mind having an odd assortment or doing the Polident scrub either. And until such purchase I’ll be sure to use your denture cleaner tip for my clouded Ikea glasses….
My mom passed all her beautiful crystal on to me. She had rarely used it -maybe five times in fifty years. Each piece was at a premium replacement price ten years ago, so in my cupboard they stayed. But now the market is apparently flooded from estates and the price is 1/4 what it was – reasonable enough that we tossed the new glassware and use the crystal daily. No clouds yet, but will keep this link for reference. Thank you!
Thanks for this fascinating article, Kristina! I’ll have to try your suggestions for cloudy glasses.