Glassblower's journey from Ireland to Vermont. The art of blown glass brought to fire and light by master craftsman Simon Pearce
Quechee, Vt. — SIMON PEARCE can peer into a glowing glass furnace and tell if its molten contents are ready to be coaxed, puff by puff, into pitchers and stemware. He can study a finished goblet and detect minute flaws of symmetry. Those are the skills of a master glassblower -- hard-earned skills, as Mr. Pearce will attest. The path that led from a family pottery business in Ireland to a prosperous glassmaking factory and store in this tiny Vermont resort town was an arduous one.
It began sometime in the mid-1960s. The lanky, sandy-haired young Irishman had apprenticed as a potter and had intended to pursue that craft, like his father before him. But a moment's reflection brought a change in course.
``I suddenly realized I was collecting early glass,'' he recalls. Some of it was 150 years old and more -- ``pub glass,'' used in taverns. ``I hadn't thought about it,'' he continues, ``but I found that I liked the old glass. I liked its individuality and character.'' Every piece, of course, had been handmade under the watchful eyes of a single craftsman.
``I realized . . . that there was nowhere you could buy glass with that same individuality,'' he says. ``All the other traditional crafts had been revived, but nobody was making glass.'' Then and there, he made a vow: ``I'm 21, let's see if it's possible!''
Thus commenced six months of frantic letter writing to glass manufacturers all over Europe, asking about apprenticeship possibilities. No reply. The industry, says Pearce with a wry smile, was still ``secretive, medieval.'' After a short -- and unproductive, he says -- stint in the Royal College of Art in London, the determined young man traveled to Amsterdam, where he finally hit upon the secret to getting into a glass factory: ``Arrive on their doorstep'' and be willing to do anything. He spent two ye ars in a Dutch factory doing just that, sweeping up and observing. The next stop: Scandinavia, where the attitude of glassmakers toward someone hungering for knowledge was markedly different. ``They opened their doors,'' he says. ``That's where I really learned the trade.''
Pearce returned to Ireland and by 1971 had set up a small factory ``between Cork and Dublin and Kilkenny.'' The learning process -- both glassmaking skills and business skills -- went on.
In 1975, the glassmaker took his first trip to the United States. Traveling through upper New York State and New England, ``the first thing I noticed,'' he remembers, ``were all the old mills on rivers -- all that wasted energy.'' That stuck in his mind, and the idea of a hydropower glass factory began to simmer.
On a return trip here, Pearce combed New York State for a site that combined good hydroelectric potential, a good business environment, and pleasant surroundings. He inspected 50 places, but only after arriving back in Ireland did he learn, through friends and friends of friends on both sides of the Atlantic, about the Quechee site. It was considerably more expensive than he had hoped, but the combination of desirable features was ``unbelievable.'' After some quick business with a local bank -- the prop erty was on the verge of being sold to a group of Boston investors -- the Irish glassblower and his wife had their old mill in New England.
Five years, thousands of investment dollars, and two children later, the Simon Pearce establishment on the Ottauquechee River sparkles with success. Branch retail outlets have opened in Keene, N.H., and Cambridge, Mass., and a third outlying store is scheduled to open in New York City in late September. Pearce employs 50 people and last year sold just over $1 million worth of glassware, plus pottery and some imported Irish woolens.
But the operation has its rough spots, too. Pearce sunk thousands of dollars into revamping the mill's hydro capacities to accommodate a 400-kilowatt turbine purchased from a town utility in Canada. The plan, which worked fine for a while, was to generate income by selling power to the state's utility grid and then buy back the electricity needed to run the glass furnaces. However, the state board that sets power rates has substantially reduced the amount Pearce can get for his electricity, while the pr ice he pays to get some back has risen. ``If that continues, I don't know what we will do,'' he says. He's reluctantly contemplating some lobbying trips to the state capital.
Then there's a need to rebuild a furnace damaged in a recent fire. The electrodes that superheat the molten glass and help homogenize it cost $500 each, and 24 will be needed. It's ``incredibly expensive,'' confides the glassmaker, but the furnace has to be up and running before the holiday rush.
The ``limiting factor in working glass,'' says Pearce, ``is skilled people.'' He brought three experienced glassblowers with him from Ireland and now has five American apprentices working with them. Apprenticeship in his shop lasts between two and five years, until the craftsman is able to make ``a high percentage of firsts'' (pieces that meet standards without needing to be redone), explains Pearce.
As he takes a visitor around the workshop floor, one level beneath the glass-bedecked retail area, the proprietor points to a master glassblower working with an apprentice. The older man has drawn a glob of molten silica out of the furnace with his long pipe and is blowing it into a small balloon. His assistant stands by to help with the final shaping of the glass. The stemware they're making, like most of the products here, is a two-man job. A pair working together averages 50 glasses a day .
Just how delicate and demanding is this work? ``Glass is far, far harder than pottery,'' Pearce observes, warming to a subject close to his heart. ``Glass is 90 percent judgment. You can't touch the material; you have to judge everything -- how hot, how pliable.''
Does he get much chance, himself, to create the the functional, but individualized tableware he envisioned long ago? ``I haven't for 18 months now,'' he says with a grimace. Administrative duties and expansion plans have eaten up his time. ``But I hope to get back to it soon.''
He also hopes to soon set up a ``mini-museum'' to display those treasured bits of ``pub glass,'' reminders of past glassmakers' artistry and instigators of a modern glassmaker's artistic pilgrimage.