Just before midnight on December 31, 2012, hordes of people will be crunched together like so many sardines in the icy cold midwinter streets surrounding New York City’s Times Square. They will be counting down to the beginning of a New Year.
Exactly one minute before midnight, a huge lighted ball will begin its slow descent down a mighty steel flagpole atop the One Times Square Building. The tension will mount. All eyes will turn skyward. For the final seconds, the crowd will chant “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1!” Instantly, the massive ball will erupt in a blazing display of rainbow colors to mark the start of 2013.
It’s a ritual and a street party that has been going on for more than one hundred years. Begun in 1904 by Alfred Ochs, owner of the New York Times newspaper, the Times Square affair did not have humble beginnings. Thousands of Manhattanites crowded the square and fireworks lit the inky sky to mark the year’s transition. It is said the hoopla could be heard as far away as Croton-on-Hudson, some thirty miles removed from the festivities.
Two years on, New York City banned the pyrotechnics, but Ochs was determined to continue the event. He arranged for a large illuminated ball to be lowered from a flagpole on the tower of the newspaper’s building precisely at midnight to signal the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908. In the intervening century only the number of revelers and the size of the New Year’s Eve Ball have changed.
It’s difficult to determine which has been more dramatic. Through the middle of the 20th century the Times Square attendees swelled from thousands to tens of thousands. With the advent of television in the 1950s, hundreds of thousands more people tuned in to the spectacle on their living room small screens. These days, estimates calculate the on-site crowd at one million, with one billion watching the satellite televised transmission in all corners of the globe.
The New Year’s Eve Ball has gotten a wee bit bigger as well. From its modest beginning as a seven-hundred-pound wood and iron sphere polka-dotted with 100 newfangled electric light bulbs, it now measures 12 feet in diameter, weighs 11,875 pounds, is illuminated by 32,256 LEDs, and produces 16 million colors, in billions of patterns, all made possible by the 2,688 multifaceted crystals affixed to its geodesic structural grid.
And here’s the best part: since the 2000 Millennium Celebration, the glittering crystals (which change year to year, 2013 featuring stylized doves to signify Let There Be Peace) have been manufactured by none other than Ireland’s own Waterford Crystal!
When it comes to international brand recognition, Waterford, as the global leader in crystal design, ranks among other superstars (Rolls Royce, Rolex, Harley Davidson, Apple, Microsoft, Disney, and Google to name a few). But the journey to its exalted position was bumpy.
While glass making existed in Ireland as far back as the 13th century, it was of a common sort until 1783 when brothers George and William Penrose launched their crystal-making enterprise in the busy port city of Waterford. By adding 33% lead to the silica-soda ash mix, the crystal that resulted had an unmatched purity of color and created dazzling light refraction.
For almost one hundred years Waterford’s high-quality, uniquely patterned crystal was in demand across Europe, North America and the West Indies. Then the company failed due to increased taxation and lack of investment capital. A century passed before the enterprise was revived. In 1947, a small glass-making operation was opened just down the road from the original location. Using the same rigorous crafting methods and traditional cutting designs, Waterford again cornered the Irish crystal market.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, due to worldwide competition in less expensive labor markets, Waterford downsized and several of the firm’s master craftsmen moved on to open their own glassmaking operations. Adhering to the ethic of completely hand-fashioning their work and developing their own extraordinary deeply cut patterns, numerous Irish crystal studios have garnered loyal fan bases around the world. Even so, it is the legendary Waterford hallmark that reigns supreme.
Like many a first-time visitor, on my initial trip to Ireland I was determined to bring home the ultimate keepsake: a pair of Irish crystal whiskey glasses. Having attended the annual Kinsale Food Festival and being more interested in the cultural aspects of Ireland’s culinary history than gross weight of crop yields, I had plenty of time to wander the streets of the picturesque village.
On one such foray I chanced upon the atelier of Kinsale Crystal founded by former Waterford master cutter Gerry Daly. As luck would have it, the master was there. For more than an hour, he explained the arduous (and dangerous!) process of mouth-blowing molten glass, twirling and shaping it in wooden molds, curing it from 1200C degrees to room temperature, and the painstaking work that went into designing and cutting deep patterns.
I also got the inside track on the best whiskey glass: a heavy weighted tumbler with a rounded base that fits neatly into one’s palm. Why that shape? So that a) the glass won’t tip over and waste even a drop of the heavenly nectar, and b) the warmth of one’s hand will gently heat the liquid within to the perfect temperature that will release the whiskey’s heady bouquet. I bought two, swaddled them in a favorite sweater and hand-carried them in my purse back home. Since that time, they are the only glasses I have ever used for whiskey sipping.
Irish crystal can be found in many forms. There are gorgeous bowls, vases, decanters, candlesticks, glittering accessories galore for your home, even (if the budget will allow) breathtakingly beautiful crystal chandeliers! And nothing complements a holiday table set with luxurious Irish linen more than fine Irish crystal glassware.
On New Year’s Eve it’s traditional to watch the Times Square New Year’s Ball drop and welcome the New Year with a sparkling crystal glass of bubbly champagne in hand. Call me a maverick, but I’ll be filling my precious tumblers more than once (they’re small!) with my favorite Holiday Eggnog, the recipe for which comes from a pal’s Irish-American family that has been mixing it up several generations longer than the Ball’s been dropping. Sláinte!
Editor’s Note: The House of Waterford Crystal, now located in Waterford City, offers a guided factory tour that showcases master craftsmen at work and an opulent retail store featuring a large collection of the world’s coveted crystal.
The Chisholm-Hasker Family Eggnog
2 quarts whole milk
1 quart cream
1 quart Bourbon
1 pint Dark Rum
1⁄2 pint Brandy
1 dozen eggs
1 cup sugar
Nutmeg to taste
Separate eggs. Beat yolks; add sugar; beat well. Slowly drizzle whiskey into egg mixture, stirring constantly. Slowly add rum, then brandy. Add milk and cream.
Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold egg whites into liquid mixture.
Refrigerate several days or at least overnight to ripen. Stir before serving to recombine ingredients. Serve with a sprinkling of nutmeg on top.
NOTE: This recipe calls for raw eggs, which not everyone can eat. The quantities specified make Eggnog for a crowd; recipe can be halved.
CARING FOR IRISH CRYSTAL
Fine crystal can crack when subjected to extremes of hot and cold. Before putting very warm food or liquid into a crystal container, preheat the crystal with moderately hot tap water. Do not pour cold beverages into crystal that’s just been washed with hot water. Likewise, do not wash a crystal piece that’s just come out of the refrigerator; allow it to warm to room temperature first.
Hand washing with mild dish detergent is recommended as dishwasher detergent is abrasive and can scratch the crystal. Air dry upside down on a rack. Always store stemware upright to prevent chipping.
IRISH CRYSTAL PRODUCERS
When searching for Irish Crystal, bear in mind that each manufacturer produces unique designs.
• BELFAST CRYSTAL www.belfastcrystal.com
• DINGLE CRYSTAL www.dinglecrystal.ie
• DUBLIN CRYSTAL www.dublincrystal.com
• GALWAY IRISH CRYSTAL www.galwaycrystal.ie
• HERITAGE IRISH CRYSTAL www.heritagecrystal.com
• KINSALE CRYSTAL www.kinsalecrystal.ie
• TIPPERARY CRYSTAL www.tipperarycrystal.com
• WATERFORD CRYSTAL na.wwrd.com/ae/us/waterford/icat/waterford/