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What Is Lead Crystal Glass?

Updated on December 20, 2013

Products made from lead crystal glass are still widely considered to be premium goods suitable for wedding presents, anniversary presents or for many other special occasions.

But what exactly is lead crystal glass?

Essentially, in this type of glass lead replaces the calcium content of a typical potash glass. It is popular as a decorative glass because it has a high refractive index thanks to the high content of heavy metal lead within it. It is sometimes also used for industrial purposes as well.

Lead crystal glass is ideal for glassmakers because the addition of lead oxide to potash glass reduces its viscosity: it is more fluid than ordinary glass above softening temperature (around 600 degrees Celsius) and has a working point of 800 degrees Celsius. Because it can be worked at a lower temperature it can be moulded smoothly into all kinds of objects and the glass can be made freer from trapped air bubbles than with ordinary glass. These are just two reasons why it is more valuable than normal glass.

Glasses containing lead oxide have been produced for thousands of years. They first appeared in Mesopotamia and the earliest example is a blue glass fragment dated at around 1400 BC. However, it was not until the late 17th Century that the merchant George Ravenscroft began to produce lead crystal glassware on an industrial scale. He used flint as the silica source and, once this method was perfected, his glasses enabled England to overtake Venice as the centre of the glass industry at this time. After his death, many other manufacturers took up the same model and a thriving lead crystal glass industry was born and still exists to this day.

If you’re thinking of buying some lead crystal glass then it’s a good idea to learn the difference between this and the lower value standard cut glass so you know you are getting the real thing. A very basic test is to lift items up to compare them, as lead crystal tends to be noticeably heavier than glass. This is because any item sold as full lead crystal must contain at least 24 per cent lead oxide.

If you don’t have two items to compare then another way of testing whether something is genuine lead crystal or not is to use your ears. Lift the glass, jug or whatever you’re buying up to your ears, first making certain there are no discernible cracks on the surface. When you’ve done this, lightly tap with two fingers near the base of the item and listen for the sound it makes. You will find that lead crystal glass, unlike cut glass, will make a recognisably melodic ‘ping’ sound when tapped.

You can also examine the object for transparency by holding it up to a bright light. Crystal should contain no colour whatsoever, whereas you will find that cut glass will have some faint hints of green or yellow. Look for the light refraction too, as in crystal this can produce an attractive rainbow effect. Remember also that lead crystal glass should have a smooth surface which is free from imperfections, whereas standard glass will often feel slightly rough to the touch or contain air bubbles.

Lead crystal glass is used to make a wide variety of objects these days, from glasses and jugs to decanters, vases, perfume bottles, ornaments or even trophies. Many people will buy crystal objects as gifts for weddings, anniversaries, retirements etc. Others will buy it themselves for their ‘special occasion’ tableware. It’s nice to have some special glass for guests to use when you are having a dinner party, for example.

Take your time buying your lead crystal glass as you want to make sure you are getting a genuine article of the highest quality.

These days you can get very good deals on premium products such as this if you look online. Go for a well-known company that has been established for a number of years and has excellent online customer reviews. Once you’ve confirmed that you are able to return an item if you are not happy with the quality or it isn’t quite what you’d hoped for then purchasing lead crystal over the internet is no riskier than buying it from a shop. Added to this, it is an awful lot more convenient as it’s delivered straight to your door.

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