Czechs' aims are crystal clear. Glass factory wants to sell world's finest crystal

At the Moser factory in this celebrated spa town, Czechoslovakia's communists are working hard to produce one of the world's luxury products -- hand-cut crystal. ``We want to be like Rolls Royce,'' says Miroslav Mateju, Moser's marketing manager, as he looks over an intricate collection of crystal vases.

That quest has produced mixed results.

Although Moser and other Czechoslovakian firms have powered this small, central European country into a world-class crystal maker, the nation is finding it harder and harder to compete in a tightening world market. Their problems illustrate the growing difficulties in trying to bridge the East-West political divide through trade.

Crystal should be a field in which Czechoslovakia succeeds. Large-scale production of fine-cut glassware started in the 17th century in the Bohemia region, and Czech firms succeeded against stiff German, French, and British competition.

In 1857, Ludwig Moser founded his workship here in this town that then bore the German name, Carlsbad.

Having developed a lead-free crystal that permitted easy engraving, he built up a reputation for quality that encouraged him to open a shop in New York City.

Carlsbad itself provided a ready market. Set at the bottom of verdant hills, the spa was a vacation center at the turn of the century for European aristocrats. They came to the opulent Hotel Pulpp and strolled beside the art nouveau colonnades along the little Telpla river, enjoying the spa waters and the fashionable scene.

After the communist takeover in 1948, the town's German population was repatriated across the nearby border, and Carlsbad was renamed Karlovy Vary. Under communist rule, the Hotel Pulpp became the Hotel Moscow. In the main bath, a sculpture was erected of the first man in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

``I wouldn't want to be any aristocrat's porter,'' says Miroslav Sebesta, Karlovy Vary's Director of Tourism. ``We have put this spa in the hands of the people.''

The nation also began concentrating on mass production of glassware instead of handmade luxury items. Jan Vrede, deputy director of glasswork at the Ministry of Industry, says that the communist regime favored ``more practical products.'' He also says that during the early 1950s, Western countries refused entry to Czechoslovakian crystal.

When East-West tensions lessened during the 1960s, the nation once again competed in Western markets. The lure was hard currency. By 1970, Mr. Vrede says, 80 percent of the nation's exports were moving westward.

At the same time, Karlovy Vary began trying to attract West German tourists. Some hotels were restored to their former splendor.

While Western visitors enjoy the luxury, groups of East-bloc visitors stay in shoddy pensions or in private homes where a room costs about $2 a night. At the town hall, Tourist Director Sebesta beams when talking about the recent visit of a princess from Saudi Arabia.

``Our goal is to maintain the international character of the town,'' he says.

Despite the royal visit, this task remains far from fulfilled. Mr. Sebesta admits that long years of neglect and lack of restoration funds leave many municipal buildings ``shabby.'' Restaurants and shops lack the necessary glamor, he adds.

``We've only given the city a new coat of paint so far,'' he says, ``when it needs a complete overhaul.''

A similar message is heard at Moser and other crystal factories.

In recent years, their export drives have faltered. Vrede at the Ministry of Industry says that since 1981, the total value of Czechoslovakian crystal exports has fallen by 30 percent.

As with other East European products, crystal sales suffered from the West's recession and increased protectionist pressure.

The nation's marketing managers have trouble penetrating the American market because Czechoslovakia does not receive the so-called ``most-favored nation'' trading status granted by the Congress. With high tariffs putting their products at a disadvantage against French, British, and German competitors, Mr. Mateju at Moser says the company has not been able to justify reopening its prewar store in New York.

Questionable quality accounts for at least part of the decline.

Mateju cites as his main competition the French firm, Baccarat. But in Paris, Baccarat's product manager, Bernard Depardieu, says, ``we don't worry about the Czechs.'' Why? ``Czech crystal is poorly finished,'' he answers.

Unreliable deliveries and poor packaging also hurt sales. An official at Britain's renowned Waterford glass company, who prefers to remain anonymous, says the Czechoslovakians are often late on deliveries. She adds that their styling is ``heavily decorated and old fashioned.''

To overcome these problems, common to many East European manufacturers, the Czechoslovakian crystal makers rely on the most powerful of all weapons: prices. Because their labor costs are so much lower than Western manufacturers, they undersell West European competitors by as much as 10 percent to 50 percent.

Their strategy boosts sales. According to Mr. Vrede, it also gives Western crystal buyers leverage in demanding lower and lower prices.

``Every year, they offer less and less,'' he complains. ``We're no longer getting just value.''

In part, these difficulties are pushing the nation's planners toward Eastern markets. At Moser, sales to the Soviet Union are rising fast and now account for 10 percent of production. Mateju says the Soviets are becoming tougher customers, asking for better and better quality products.

``The Soviets enjoy beautiful things, too,'' he says. ``They are more reliable customers than the West.''

But just as Rolls Royce doesn't see its salvation in satisfying the Soviet market, the leaders at Moser acknowledge the impossibility of trying to raise hard-currency profits by selling to the Soviets and East European neighbors.

Meanwhile, on the factory floor, as inspectors throw defective glass into a recycling bin, the marketing manager says that up to 60 percent of production must be reprocessed.

``No matter what, we must improve quality to guard the Moser name,'' Mateju explains. ``It's not easy trying to be Rolls Royce.''

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