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Lenox might close stemware factory

Monday, October 08, 2001

By Bill Heltzel, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Richard Nixon toasted a head of state with Lenox crystal and four recent U.S. presidents have received engraved Lenox crystal bowls made in Mount Pleasant.

But that legacy, and a 150-year link in Western Pennsylvania's glass-making history, could be broken by the end of the year because Brown-Forman Corp. might close the Lenox crystal stemware factory.

The Mount Pleasant factory is the only place where Lenox makes crystal stemware, and it might be the last major operation in the United States where craftsmen employ centuries-old techniques to make high-quality, handmade glass.

Brown-Forman attributes the pending closure to a "casualization of American society," that has dampened demand for fine crystal, and to increasing foreign competition.

Company officials met with workers Wednesday.

"We're hopeful that we can figure out a way to keep it open," said corporate spokesman Phil Lynch on Friday. "But we've been working on the problem for a year now. We wanted the employees to know this week that there will probably be a decision."

A final decision will be made within 45 days.

The plant employs 158 people, including 132 hourly and 26 salaried workers.

If the factory closes, it will probably happen in December or January. Lynch would not say if the corporation is looking for a buyer.

A closing would not end glassmaking in the region. In fact, L.E. Smith Glass Co. in Mount Pleasant, which makes pressed glassware and gift items, employs more people.

But Lenox is the only regional factory that makes the kind of fine stemware that is associated with elite restaurants and upper crust dining rooms.

"It's the Waterford crystal of the U.S.," said Anne Madarasz, chief curator of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

The difference is in the raw materials and processes. Crystal is composed of 6 percent lead, which gives it a weight, clarity and hardness that can be etched or cut. Common glassware is made of soda lime, and is too brittle for such treatments.

The Mount Pleasant factory still uses the German method, in which a gob of molten glass is gathered at the end of a pipe, placed in a mold and hand-blown. The blower shapes the goblet bowl by breathing in just the right amount of air pressure.

"When you're a blower, you're something," said a Lenox worker who asked not to be named. "If you say you work at Lenox and you blow the ware, people are totally amazed that you can do something like that."

Common glass is pressed by machines, and some crystal also is made that way. Machine-made crystal is usually bulkier and heavier. A hand-blown goblet is distinguished by ultra-thin walls. Run a wet finger along the rim, and it rings.

Nixon toasted Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in 1972 with Lenox crystal etched with the State Department seal. Lenox made the signature glasses that Nancy Reagan gave as official gifts. And the last four presidents received 9-inch engraved crystal bowls from Congress, on behalf of the American people, at their inaugurations.

The factory traces its lineage to James Bryce, who apprenticed himself as a glassmaker in Pittsburgh in the 1820s, according to glass historian Ellen Denker. He started his own glass company in 1841.

Pittsburgh was a major glass center, and by 1900 more than a hundred factories in the region were producing nearly one-third of the glass made in America.

Around 1896, the Bryce factory was moved to Mount Pleasant.

Bryce fine lead crystal was used in U.S. embassies from the 1920s to the 1950s, and in 1947 it was made the official crystal for the king of Saudi Arabia. Bryce concentrated on luxury hotels, fine restaurants and exclusive clubs -- like the Duquesne Club -- for which it engraved the customer's logo into the glass.

Lenox, which is known for its china, bought the Bryce company when it decided in the 1960s to sell fine crystal and sterling silver, Denker said.

In 1970, Lenox opened a new factory on Route 31, a half-mile east of Mount Pleasant Borough. The plant employed 325 people. The company hoped to expand and employ another 350, but the work force topped out at around 400 in the late 1980s. Employment has dropped steadily ever since.

Fine crystal making survived in Mount Pleasant because Lenox changed its marketing strategy and streamlined production, Denker said. Lenox dropped the Bryce brand for its own more recognizable name, and it cut down on the number of glass shapes.

"Whereas a typical upper class table in the 1920s might have five or six different wine glasses," Denker said, "now there was one, or maybe two, for red and white wine."

Reducing the variety of shapes made the factory more efficient.

But American culture was changing.

Formal dining at home became less fashionable. Dining out shifted from fancy restaurants with tablecloths to casual settings.

The first to go in bridal registries was the sterling silver. It was considered too much trouble to polish, Lynch said. Crystal was next. Why buy glassware at $25 per stem when you could buy a whole set of glassware for that price?

Lenox also faced stiff competition, from the Anglo-Irish cut crystal on the high end to the French machine-made crystal on the low end, Denker said.

Lenox became the dominant American brand, but it didn't export much and it lagged behind Waterford.

Price also has been a big factor.

"Americans don't pay for skill anymore," Denker said. "They will pay for fashion design, but they don't understand about paying for quality and hand-workmanship."

While Waterford is the customer's favorite, the factory's greatest competition comes from Nachtmann Crystal Co. of Germany.

Company officials reportedly told union officials of the American Flint Glass Workers that Nachtmann quoted $3.76 per stem to make a line that Lenox produces for $7.46 per stem.

"Cost-wise," a union member said, "it's hard to compete with them. Theirs is cheaper than ours, but until the public realizes what's going on, naturally they will buy the cheaper."

Lenox already imports most of its crystal, the union member said, and Nachtmann is one of the company's main sources. He said the German company tried to buy the Mount Pleasant plant last year, but the deal fell through.

The Mount Pleasant factory is a small part of Brown-Forman's empire. The Louisville, Ky.-based corporation employs 7,400 people and had sales of nearly $2.2 billion last fiscal year. It is best known for its Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey, but also produces liquor and wine under 32 other labels. It makes china, dinnerware, glassware, sterling silver, collectibles, jewelry and luggage under the Lenox, Gorham and Hartmann brands.

The wine and spirits segment accounted for 72 percent of sales and 74 percent of profits last year. The consumer durables segment, of which Lenox is part, had sales of $607 million and gross profit of $304 million.

The Lenox plant's impact on Mount Pleasant, however, is great. Although it is located outside of town, about 5 percent of the 4,750 residents work there, said Mayor Gerald Lucia. It is the third largest employer in the area, behind Frick Hospital & Community Health Center and L.E. Smith Glass.

The two glass factories also attract a lot of bus tours, and tourists enrich the local economy, particularly restaurants.

The union jobs pay $12.50 to $18.80 an hour, and the average age of the workers is 46.

More important, Lucia said, are the history and tradition. For three days every September, the town showcases its heritage at an annual glassware festival.

"There's a lot of pride in these jobs," he said. "Some families have three or four generations of glassmakers." And it is customary to own at least one piece of the fancy stemware, "so they can say, 'I have a piece of Lenox crystal.' "

"It would end a 150-year legacy of a single glassmaker in continuous production," said Madarasz.

"That would be a shame -- another lost industry, another tradition that can't be replaced, and skilled people who would not be likely to find jobs like that here in Western Pennsylvania."

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