More Than a Touch of Glass
August 24, 2015
Text by Robert Kiener
Simon Pearce’s Vermont-based company offers handmade glassware and a growing range of unique, elegant accessories.
We call it getting lost in the glass,” says Bill Browne, one of Simon Pearce’s master glassblowers and production director, as we watch a skilled glassblower use a four-foot long, hollow blowpipe to gather a honey-like glob of molten glass from deep within the glory hole of a 2,300-degree furnace. The glassblower, twenty-one-year-old Tanner Fosher, is a study in concentration as he transforms the molten glass by centering, blowing, rolling, shaping, blocking, and opening it into something that begins—almost magically—to resemble a wineglass.
As Fosher and an apprentice glassblower work seamlessly together, one turning the blowpipe to keep the emerging glass centered and shaped, the other snipping off a tail of molten glass, Browne tells me, “They are both in the zone now; they’re completely focused on what they’re doing. There’s a lot of Zen in the art of glassmaking.”
I’ve come to the Simon Pearce glassblowing workshop in Quechee, Vermont, to see firsthand how the company produces its much-coveted glassware, all of which is handmade.
As we watch the glassblowers at work, Browne shows me the proprietary mix (“Simon’s secret formula,” he says) of Belgian silica sand, lime, barium, and potash that makes up the “batch” that is mixed in Sweden and melted here to produce the brilliantly clear glass that has become Pearce’s signature. “Our silica is almost iron-free, and that helps us produce clear glassware without hues and imperfections,” Browne explains. “It gives our glass the brilliance that has become our trademark.”
In the retail shop above the factory, Browne picks up a pair of Essex wineglasses (one of Pearce’s earliest designs, dating back to his days as a glassblower in Ireland, before he moved to the United States in 1981). He clinks them sharply together. “Did you hear that?” he asks. “It’s alive; it doesn’t sound dead like machine-made glass. And notice it’s sturdy and thick. I wouldn’t try that with machine-made glasses. They’d probably shatter.”
While Simon Pearce has become known for its classic, functional handblown glassware, pottery, and dinnerware, the company also offers heirloom-quality artisanal glassware. The firm’s three-year-old Pure line comprises elegantly designed, one-of-a-kind vases, bowls, and platters that range in price from $200 for a pair of Middlebury flutes to $1,500 for a large vase.
“The Pure line gives us the opportunity to go above and beyond what we typically produce,” says James Murray, the company’s vice president of design, product development, and creative. “Each piece is unique and made by our most artistically talented glassblowers. The line is aimed at a collector or someone who is looking for an unusual or fantastic piece that makes a statement.”
Murray explains that the Pure line, like many of the Pearce designs, is a collaboration. “Simon and I may draw up some designs,” he explains as he points out several embryonic sketches in his Moleskine watercolor pad. “But the master glassblowers also have input. They’re never shy about offering suggestions, and it’s their virtuosity that gives this artisanal glassware its magic.”
Murray picks up a heavy vase from the Pure collection that was made by wrapping long strands of molten glass round a vase. “This came out of experimentation in the factory,” he says. “It’s a testimony to the artists we have here and their willingness to let the glass take them where it wants to go.”
As he holds up the vase he adds, “That’s a real collaboration between designer, glassblower, and the glass itself.”
In addition to extending existing lines by adding new models of glasses to classics such as Essex, Westport, and Ascutney, the company offers specially sourced and handcrafted wooden bowls, flatware, place settings, pottery, and other furnishings. Custom work, such as designing and fabricating glass chandeliers, is also available. The company’s Focal Point Design Professional Program offers trade discounts, and its products are sold online and in five Simon Pearce retail shops and some 500 independent outlets, from small shops to giants such as Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus.
The company is headquartered in Windsor, Vermont, where it has a glassblowing factory in addition to one in Quechee and another in Mountain Lake, Maryland. The Quechee factory, retail shop, and restaurant are housed in the 1800s former linen mill that Simon Pearce bought in 1981. It draws some 300,000 visitors a year, making it the second most popular visitor attraction in Vermont after Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory.
Simon Pearce, who is sixty-nine, still lives in Vermont not far from Quechee, and is active in the management, creative, and design-side of the company. Although he doesn’t blow glass on a regular basis anymore, he still does it for the fun of it. And he is still captivated by the magic of glass. He admits to being excited when a new design is first produced. As he has said, “I can never wait to see a piece, even after all this time. I still get as much excitement out of seeing it now as I did when I started.” •