A beginners guide to buying and selling crystal
By Michael and James Fry, Brown Button Estate Sales
When delving into a new category of buying and selling, the learning curve can often be a bit intimidating. Understanding the nuances of value for many categories can take months or even years to learn. However with crystal, understanding the fundamentals and learning to distinguish it from regular glass can be tackled in a single afternoon. There are four common characteristics that make crystal easy to identify. Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals you can then move on to understanding what makes one crystal vase worth $15 and another worth $1,500.
The regular non-crystal drinking glasses in your cupboard are made from soda, lime, and silica (sand). Crystal in contrast, is comprised of soda, lead oxide, and silica. Legally for a manufacturer to call their glassware “crystal” it needs to contain at least 24 percent lead. As a general rule, the higher the quality of the crystal, the larger percentage of the lead, with some pieces containing upward of 30 percent. The lead serves several important functions, all of which give crystal the attributes that make it special. It significantly increases the reflective and brilliant qualities of the glass. It raises the density, making it considerably heavier than regular glass. Lead also enables the craftsman to work with the molten glass at a lower temperature. This allows them to create unique designs with much higher quality and clarity, with pieces free from trapped air bubbles. To sum up: adding lead into the mix creates heavier, clearer, prettier, and easier to work with glass.
The qualities lead imparts to crystal, are the same qualities we use to identify it. Those four qualities are Brilliance, Weight, Sound, and Clarity.
Brilliance: A piece of crystal—especially when it’s been cut—will exude a certain type of brilliance similar to a diamond. Its corners will sparkle and if you hold it up to the light you should be able to see a prism or rainbow effect in the glass.
Weight: Crystal weighs more than glass. Often when you pick up a crystal goblet or figurine, you might be taken aback by the unexpected weight compared to its size.
Sound: To test for crystal use your knuckle to knock lightly on the edge of the piece in question. Crystal gives a higher melodious ping that often will ring for a second or two. Regular glass in contrast will make a plunk sound and won’t resonate. This method works great with any type of drinking glass or vase, while not so great with figurines or some other shapes. If you are unsure of what a crystal “ping” is suppose to sound like we suggest that you visit several high end stores such as Williams-Sonoma on the Plaza and Halls in Crown Center to try your hand gently tapping both their regular glass and crystal and listen the difference in sound.
Clarity: At first this might seem like an odd way to identify glass from crystal. After all isn’t the most notable feature of glass that it’s clear? The difference is quite noticeable when you hold similarly shaped pieces of glass and crystal next to each other. The glass piece will seem cloudier and might have a wavy look to it. The image you see on the other side will look distorted. Crystal on the other hand will be quite clear. This becomes even more true with higher-end, higher-quality pieces. You can hold up a 4in. thick Stuben or Baccarat figurine to a book and you’ll be able to read the text.
Identifying a piece as crystal is just the first step to understanding if it’s valuable or not. Many of the crystal pieces we sell at our estate sales go between $10 and $25. We’ve also sold pieces between $100 and $500. The difference between the two starts with who made it. As with many categories of items, the company or brand has a huge impact on price. The majority of notable crystal pieces will be marked somewhere on the base of the item. Often it will be an acid-etched or sandblasted logo and/or company name. It’s been helpful for us to divide the main crystal companies we run across into two groups.
The first group includes Orrefors, Kosta Boda, Swarovski, and the ever prevalent Waterford. Of the many hundreds of pieces of crystal that we’ve dealt with over the years by these companies, 95 percent have been worth less than $100. The second group of companies is Baccarat, Steuben, Lalique, Saint-Louis Crystal, and Daum. We do not run across these brands very often, and when we do the prices tend to be much, much higher. Is every piece of Lalique worth $100s? No. Neither is every piece of Waterford worth less than $50, but these are good general guidelines.
In addition to identifying valuable brands, finding either a numbered edition, an artist’s signature, or both etched into the bottom of a piece is always a good indicator of higher value. The numbered edition will show up looking like a fraction 450/3000, as in, this is the 450th piece made out of a total of only 3,000. The smaller the edition number the better. An artist’s signature will let you know who originally designed that specific piece of crystal. So if you find a piece of Kosta Boda with Bertil Vallien name on the bottom, it’s generally going to be of higher interest than an unsigned piece.
The last factor to mention in determining crystal value takes by far the longest time to learn. As we mentioned, identifying crystal from glass can be learned in a day. Identifying the different lines and patterns and which ones have more significant value is a much larger undertaking. The specific pattern, supply and demand, the original retail price, and discontinuation will all affect the resell price. Waterford goblets are a great example, as they are only marked with the company name and not the pattern or line. To an uneducated eye a set of four Waterford Marquis wine goblets and a set of four Waterford Powerscourt wine goblets look fairly similar. The Marquis set sells between $25 and $40, while the Powerscourt set sells between $150 and $200.
The subject is vast enough that the best we can do is give you an overview and point you in the right direction. For anyone who’s interested in going deeper and studying more about the world of crystal, the resources below will give you a great place to continue your learning:
One final note: if you want to see a handful of exquisite museum quality pieces of crystal, you can check out the American Collection on the second floor at the Nelson Atkins Museum. They are quite the lookers. Cheers!