Famous crystal from a `family' business

Cra-a-a-sh! Another piece of delicate crystal smashes into the discard bin inside the Compagnie des Cristalleries de Baccarat.

The shatter of breaking glass is heard often at this factory in northeastern France near the Vosges Mountains. The discard bin is the fate of any flawed piece of Baccarat crystal. There are no seconds.

Through the years Baccarat pieces have earned the name ``Crystal of Kings.'' They have graced the tables of such dignitaries as the Czar of Russia, Louis XVIII, each President of France, several Sultans of the Middle East, Ethiopia's Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Japan, Theodore Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. And 32 Baccarat employees have won highest awards at national fairs and international expositions for their creations.

The desirability -- and therefore the high cost -- of Baccarat crystal lies in the fine design, the heavy weight, the balance of each piece, the impeccable cutting, and most of all, the unusual clarity and brilliance of the glass.

To accomplish this degree of perfection, roughly 1 out of 12 employees is involved in quality control. A goblet may pass through 50 pairs of hands before completion, and almost one-third of the production is scrapped along the way. The splintered glass, however, is used to make new crystal.

The factory itself -- this reporter was permitted a rare tour -- can be sizzling hot on one side and freezing cold on the other since a large round superheated furnace occupies the center of the main shop. The furnace is punctuated with openings, called ``glory holes,'' to reach the molten glass mixture inside.

A goblet is formed by a crew of six. The process starts with the gatherer, who reaches into the glory hole with his long hollow metal ``punty stick'' to gather a blob of red-hot glass. He passes it to the worker who forms the bowl of the goblet. The punty and bowl then pass to the stem man, who adds molten glass to fashion the stem, and on to the man who adds another red-hot blob to form the base. The complete goblet is then broken from the punty stick and passed on to another crew to be reheated then sent on to still other shops to be cut, etched, and polished.

Nearby, crews press and blow liquid glass into small fancy items like jam jars, mustard pots, sugar bowls, perfume bottles, and prisms for sparkling chandeliers. Larger items like decanters, pitchers, bowls, and vases are crafted in other shops with furnaces in the factory complex.

The quality of the product begins with the special mix of ingredients with a large amount of lead oxide in the crystal. Furnaces are regulated by computer, and a unique method of continuously flowing molten glass eliminates irregularities that occur when glass is cooled then reheated.

The team spirit here may well contribute to the unusual record of good labor relations the Baccarat factory has had since its founding in 1765. The factory boasts that it has never had a strike. That may be because benefits to workers started early: In 1827 the company began to provide health care; in 1831 it started an employees' savings bank; a disability fund began in 1835, 100 years before France's social security law was passed. In 1978 stock was offered for sale to employees at near full price, and 575 people bought stock that has now increased in value many times over. Pay, ranging from $400 to $1,200 a month, is considered good for factory workers in France. The Baccarat plant is respected throughout France for its progressiveness.

Two and three generations of the same family have worked here. Ren'e Scheidez has been at the factory for 27 years, and his 17-year-old-son, Gilles, has been an apprentice since October. Numerous young people, men and women, are apprenticing in the factory's training program. There is virtually no other manufacturing in this vicinity, so jobs are scarce.

Although the Baccarat factory is closed to visitors, a museum is located in the factory complex chateau in the town of Baccarat. It is open every day from June 15 to Sept. 15. In Paris, a museum adjoins the salesroom in the Baccarat Building at 33 bis, rue de Paradis, which is open every business day.

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