If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between crystal and glass, the answer might be summed up with one word: “fine”.
Traditional glass tends to be less malleable and workable when melted, which means finished pieces tend to be clunkier and thicker. On the other hand, specific mineral and chemical additions can create a stronger, more malleable material; this can be crafted into thinner, finer, more elegant pieces of tableware and art. But the full answer is a little more complicated, so read on to learn more.
While solid glass ingots and sheets were first produced thousands of years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia, glassblowing was invented in Syria around 100 BCE, and modern-day glass-blowing materials and equipment such as molds, tubing,and griffin glass tools would still be recognizable to ancient glassmakers.
After the ancient process was imported to Rome, artists continued to hone their craft by experimenting with additives and procedures that would give rise to the product known as “crystal” by the fifteenth century. But describing these types of fine products as “crystal” is something of a misnomer, since true crystal is formed in nature as once-molten material cools and its molecules form a repeating pattern.
As artisans copied and refined this process in their shops over a few thousand years, Italian glassmakers experimented with new additives and created a fine, colorless glass. They named it “cristallo”, and a new luxury product was born.
The primary additive that gave man-made crystal its unique properties was originally lead, but today there are several other alternatives. Production standards vary globally: UK standards dictate that, for a piece to be considered as fine crystal, it must contain a minimum of 24 percent mineral additives, but there are currently no such stipulations in the US. Below are a few more differences that you’ll find if you’re in the market.
Basic, traditional glass will likely have a warm-toned appearance, possibly with a small degree of opacity or dullness. Crystal tends to have a bluish tinge with a greater degree of clarity, as well as a prismatic effect or even a “sparkle” to it. One can use a pocket blacklight to look at the phosphorescence of the piece; a greenish glow indicates a traditional glass piece, whereas a purplish or bluish hue indicates the presence of additives.
Crystal has a very distinct resonance when tapped gently with a fork or similar metal object, or when you drag a wet finger across the rim. When lightly tapping a standard glass piece, you may hear a chunkier sound that doesn’t have a ring to it — the sound will be more like a “tink” rather than a “ting”. Crystal pieces have a ring to them and in some cases, they are specifically made to make music.
You’ll want to perform some due diligence before opening your wallet. If you see a piece that seems more expensive than typical glassware, you might suspect that it’s crystal, though you’ll want to check if the item is in its original packaging.
Care and handling
You might be wondering if crystal is safe for table use. Traditional glass is non-porous and non-reactive, which makes it an excellent candidate for use in dishwashers and food and beverage storage. As these pieces are generally more affordable and perhaps sturdier, they are more suited for everyday use.
Crystal glassware, however, is more porous and therefore not suitable for dishwashers or long-term storage of beverages or food items. It tends to be finer, more delicate, and more expensive, and thus is best reserved for occasional use.
While some kinds of crystal products are lead-free, experts warn against frequent use of leaded-crystal products. And they don’t recommend storing liquids in containers like whiskey decanters for long. Lead antique pieces are best to be admired in a collection, instead.