What is the future of Czech glassmaking?

Glassmaking - one of the trademarks of the Czech Republic – is going through hard times. This autumn, the biggest Czech glassmaker, Bohemia Crystalex trading, was forced to close down two of its four plants and sack nearly 2,000 employees in order to stay afloat. Does that mark the end of the country’s long glassmaking tradition? And what will other producers do to avoid getting into a similar situation?

Bohemia Crystalex Trading, a company producing 90 percent of Czech glass, currently owns nearly three billion crowns, or more than 170 million US dollars. The company’s spokesman Karel Samec attributes its dire financial situation to a slump in interest and the strength of the crown hurting exports.

“The two plants that were closed down produced mainly so-called lead glass and the sales of this type of glass have been declining all over the world. For example in the United States, which is the main market for this kind of glass, the yearly income from this product has fallen from 700 to 200 million crowns. Such a large sum is hard to substitute on a short term basis.”

The Bohemia Crystalex glassworks was prepared to introduce an alternative production programme. They planned to replace lead glass with a different material called “crystlight”, which had pretty much the same qualities but was much cheaper. However, a change in technology required initial investments. The company found itself deep in debt and, in view of the financial crisis, it couldn’t deal with the situation. Karel Samec again:

“Lead glass is used mainly for producing ornamental objects such as vases, lamps or engraved glass. These are of course the first things people give up when they have to start saving. Ordinary drinking glass, laboratory glass and ovenware are still in demand. Of course, this line of production has been affected as well, but not as badly.”

While the future of Crystalex remains uncertain, another glassmaking company from Nový Bor, seems to be doing just fine. Ajeto was established by the well-known designer Bořek Šípek and by his friend, glassmaker Petr Novotný. One of their workshops is located just a few metres from the Crystalex headquarters. This is where I met Petr Novotný to ask him what he though of the current situation in glassmaking. He told me the crisis was something to be expected. Unlike Karel Samec, he blames mainly cheap exports from abroad.

“In the communist era, we were something like China in the eyes of the western countries, because we produced very cheap glass. Now the situation has changed. We are as expensive as Germany and the production has moved to the east, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Vietnam and China. This is why big companies have the problems they do and find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Petr Novotný, who himself spent years as a teacher and glassmaker in Bohemia Crystalex trading, believes that the era of mass glass production has come to an end. Where does he see the future of glassmaking?

“You have to invest in small studios and specialised work. This is the only way glassmakers can survive. We have to focus on small orders, and produce fewer pieces, which are more complicated but also more expensive. The only way to be good is to cooperate with good designers, or even bad designers – as long as there are people who want to buy the products.”

Another important thing, he says, is to invest in young people who will carry on the tradition:

“It’s very important to choose people between 25 and 28 years of age and turn them into glass masters. Of course, they are not good from the very beginning, but they develop very fast and after three or four years, you have a good glass master. It is also important to send our young glassmakers abroad for a few months. They are usually happier at home afterwards, because they find that it’s the same everywhere.”

Moser glassworksMoser glassworks The trademark most people associate with Czech glass is Moser, arguably one of the most prestigious manufacturers of luxury glass in the world and definitely one of the Czech Republic’s finest brand names. Its flagship store is located on Příkopy street right in the centre of Prague. This is where I met Josef Slunečko, the company’s marketing director. He too agrees that the current crisis in the industry was something predictable.

“I would say it’s a natural process. I saw the same thing in the 1980s happening in Europe, in France and in Germany. Some companies were closed down and others were taken over by investors. I expected the same thing to happen in the Czech Republic so I wasn’t surprised that some glass and porcelain companies were closed down in the past few years and that even the biggest company in the business came to the brink of bankruptcy.”

Moser, just like Ajeto glassworks, produces luxury glass in small editions, and so far it seems to be holding up pretty well. But Josef Slunečko says they too are feeling the pinch of the current crisis, and have to take certain measures:

Josef Slunečko, photo: Zdeněk VališJosef Slunečko, photo: Zdeněk Vališ “Of course we will have to cut some costs in 2009 so as to overcome these hurdles smoothly. On the other hand, we are still riding on a wave of interest from our clients and our delivery terms range from four to seven months. So in this sense, things are looking good. We have even had to increase our production capacity in order to satisfy our clients worldwide. That’s why we recently opened a new cutting workshop.”

Although their clients tend to be conservative and usually go for their traditional assortment, Josef Slunečko agrees that it is absolutely essential that the company encourages innovation in its products:

“The son of the founder, Leo Moser, cooperated very closely with designers in the 1920s and 1930s. Nowadays, we have more than 30 designers. We work with the youngest generation, with middle-aged designers and with the older masters of Czech glassmaking, such as René Roubíček. Moser tries to launch a new collection every year. Our production is tailor made, we are custom oriented and produce what our clients order.”

A valuable lesson there for the two plants of Bohemia Crystalex Trading which are still afloat. Several investors have already shown an interest in buying them off. Whatever their future, it will entail big changes since it is obvious that Czech glassmakers have to rethink their strategy in order to keep the tradition alive.