The fine work of a master crystal cutter

Working with deep concentration, Pepi Herrmann guides a gleaming crystal bowl against a small grinding wheel to add some final hairline-thin cuts to the design.

''This is the most tedious part of the work,'' he says, looking up with a smile. In the finished piece, the mesh of fine lines filling small shapes in the pattern creates a soft, silvery contrast to the highly polished brilliance of the larger cuts.

With more than 30 years of experience, Mr. Herrmann is one of the few independent master crystal cutters in the US. Originally from a small town in the Austrian Tyrol, he moved to this country in 1972 and settled in Laconia, N. H., where he lives with his wife, Kathi, and two children. Although he enjoys making trips back to Austria, Mr. Herrmann has no regrets about leaving his native country.

''I like this country and the way you can work here,'' says Mr. Herrmann. ''In Austria everything is regulated by the government.''

Mr. Herrmann's European craft training is reflected in his more traditional crystal designs, which combine deep and delicate cuts in rich patterns. A small, graceful bowl called ''Lady Diana,'' for example, is a glittering labyrinth of star and diamond motifs. One of the larger, more spectacular pieces is a highly ornate punch bowl that takes about 55 hours to complete.

Mr. Herrmann's shop and studio in Gilford, N. H., is housed in a quaint flower-decked chalet reminiscent of the picturesque stucco-and-wood buildings dotting the mountains of the Austrian Tyrol. He employs three cutters who trained at the Glasfach Schule (Art School for Glass) in Kramsach, Tyrol, the same school in Austria where Mr. Herrmann began learning the craft as a 15 -year-old student.

''Because of my connections with the school I was able to pick the best (apprentices) - fortunately they wanted to come,'' he says.

Unlike cutters in larger crystal companies who are responsible for one stage in the process, the workers at Mr. Herrmann's studio complete a piece from start to finish. They produce most of the pieces in the Herrmann crystal line, which includes stemware, bowls, plates, vases, and other accessory pieces. The crystal is sold directly from the New Hampshire shop and through stores in Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, and other cities across the country.

With his staff taking care of the regular orders, Mr. Herrmann is free to work on limited editions and special orders.

''The most difficult part is the rough cuts at the very beginning,'' says Mr. Herrmann. ''If you don't do it right the piece is gone.''

The cuts into the crystal are made completely free-hand, aided only by a grid marked on to the blank crystal form to ensure symmetry. Mr. Herrman chooses from 150 different grinding wheels, depending on the size and type of cut he wants to make.

After he completes the first major cuts, ''Sometimes I don't know what I'm going to do next,'' says Mr. Herrmann in his gentle Austrian accent. ''But as you work you think of things and it comes out nice.''

His contemporary pieces feature sweeping bands that undulate across the face of the crystal. One of his more imaginative projects is a crystal chess set with the chessmen cut into futuristic shapes.

''It's a crazy piece, really,'' Mr. Herrmann says with a chuckle. ''It's a lot of fun to do (the contemporary pieces), but you have to find the right customer for them.''

Although his business is growing, Mr. Herrmann plans to keep his company small so he can maintain his high standards of workmanship. Because of his concern for quality, he travels to Europe to choose the uncut crystal forms, called blanks, directly from factories in Germany and Austria to be sure the raw leaded glass does not contain any imperfections.

For the past two years Mr. Herrmann has made the presentation trophies for the Volvo International Tennis Tournament in North Conway, N. H. He has also exhibited his work at the Austrian Pavilion in Montreal, the Civic Center Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.

Whether he is working on a commercial order or a special gift for a friend, what he enjoys most, says Mr. Herrmann, is ''the chance to create something new.''

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