When you drink a glass of chardonnay, put roses in a vase or eat cheesecake from a plate, do you ever wonder where the glass or porcelain came from, what they are made of, and under what circumstances? Recent events have forced us to change our attitudes, whether as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, or the energy and environmental crises. Our supplies of raw resources are running out, as it turns out that too much energy is needed to extract them and transporting them halfway around the globe is not easy. Turbulent events have revealed the darker side of globalization and made us ask ourselves some important questions. What does being self-sufficient mean in today’s world? How to ensure the future sustainability of production? How resilient are Czech companies, and how capable of adapting to new conditions are they? How to preserve traditional crafts, and is it even worth the trouble? Perhaps everything could be summed up in one uncomfortable question: Are we facing the downfall of porcelain and glass production in Central Europe?
INNOVATORS WHOSE WINGS WERE CLIPPED BY FATE
At the beginning there is a pile of quartz sand or kaolin, a few pencil strokes on a piece of paper and a fiery furnace. At the end there is a painted plate, a cut-glass vase or a crystal chandelier which the customer hangs in a place of honor in their home. To accomplish this, you need raw material of high quality, advanced technology, talented designers, skilled craftspeople, smart salespeople, and a bit of luck. These ingredients have made the Bohemian lands a leader in the modern production of glass and porcelain. The late 17th century saw the birth of the world-famous Bohemia crystal, with the town of Harrachov having the longest history of glass smelting. The local manufactory is the oldest operating glassworks in the entire world, having been in continuous operation since 1712. Porcelain tableware from the West Bohemian Pirkenhammer factory was used in the restaurants on the Titanic and the traditional hand-cutting technique made the Moser glassworks in Karlovy Vary famous around the world. Painted white tableware produced in Haas & Czjzek in Horní Slavkov, the oldest Bohemian porcelain works, made its way to the court of the British Queen and to the Vatican. Dozens of manufacturing plants from all over the territory
of the present-day Czech Republic pride themselves on similar achievements. Achieving success however does not guarantee that the companies will thrive forever. This is especially true during the times of major historical upheavals – and there was never a shortage of those in Central Europe.
The situation after the Second World War is crucial for understanding the developments associated with Bohemian glassworks and porcelain works, particularly the division of spheres of influence agreed by western powers and the Soviet Union, the expulsion of ethnic Germans and the so-called “nationalization” of enterprise. Long-established companies oftentimes broke off their long-term business relationships overnight, changed their modes of production and were forced to accept the political goals of the Communist regime. Although the factories occasionally managed to produce truly exceptional pieces, on the whole they only existed by virtue of constant reproduction. Creativity gave way to the interests of the Communist party, which dictated where and what would be produced, regardless of existing traditions. There were some exceptions to the rule, such as the presentations at world exhibitions, like the triennials in Monza and Milan, the EXPO 58 in Brussels and the EXPO 67 in Montreal.
The shows were meant to showcase the industry at its best. The reality, however, was very different. Acclaimed products often did not go on sale in Czechoslovakia and were mainly reserved for the foreign market. Despite the fact that Czechoslovakia was one of the ten greatest producers of utilitarian glassware in the world, Czechoslovaks became accustomed to drinking from glasses made of cheap pressed glass, plastic imitations of cut-glass containers, and even mustard or jam jars shaped like glassware. Most of the interesting glassware consisted of handmade goods produced in limited numbers, barely enough for export. It was mostly sold abroad, and therefore became scarce in Czechoslovakia. Exporting provided a source of hard currency, and the foreign market remained one of the key priorities of the state.
A PAINFUL TRANSFORMATION
The poor state which the glassworks and porcelain factories were in was fully revealed only after the Velvet Revolution. Until 1989, Czechoslovakia was unique in that the enterprises were owned and operated by the state. With 80 % of their earnings coming from outside Czechoslovakia, the companies were also highly dependent on exports controlled by the state-owned “foreign trade enterprises,” which were often fixing prices to suit their own convenience. In the capitalist economic system, the companies soon found themselves in a difficult situation, without the necessary business contacts and experience with product export. Forty years of living in a country with strictly limited imports made the Czech people exhausted and, in their post-revolutionary excitement, they preferred buying foreign goods. railway cars full of glassware every week to eastern markets, but suddenly lost most of them. Handmade glass, however, did well in the 1990s, and the companies continued to benefit from their good reputation and their long-established tradition. The problems only started after Skloexport, one of the largest exporters of glass, went bankrupt in 1998, after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States significantly impacted the world market, and after the severe financial crisis of 2008. “In the two decades after the Velvet Revolution, a number of glassworks (ŽBS Železný Brod, Chlub u Třeboně, Chřibská, Libochovice, Rosice u Brna, Škrdlovice, Lenora, Včelnička, Vrbno pod Pradědem, etc.) ceased to exist, and the rest of them struggled to make ends meet,” concludes Dagmar Koudelková.
SUCCESS STORIES: COMPANIES BUILD ON HISTORICAL HERITAGE
It took several years for the porcelain factories and glassworks who did not have the privilege of a strong brand identity to break out of their position of subcontractors, hired only to perform skillful but cheap labor, and find the courage to sell original products under their own brand. The paths to re-establishing their damaged reputation varied from company to company: Some managers opted for the unusual combination of designing and producing in a single country, while others decided the way forward was to use raw materials of the very best quality, or to make the best use of their talented craftspeople.
The Rückl glassworks in central Bohemia for example successfully managed to start anew in 2016. They based their new strategy on the tradition of excellent glass cutting and engraving techniques adapted to a contemporary aesthetic – its modern collections breathed new life into tried and tested decorative elements such as the “klínový řez” (wedge cut), “pětistovka” (PK500) or “kugle-špulka”. The Brokis glassworks in Janštejn, Kavalierglass in Sázava, Moser in Karlovy Vary and Preciosa in Kamenický Šenov also succeeded in overcoming the obstacles of the past. While Brokis abandoned the original techniques of glass cutting and painting, transforming the factory into one of the largest and most successful producers of light fittings in the Czech Republic, Kavalierglass has continued in the tradition of borosilicate glass production; with a melting capacity exceeding 220 tons of molten glass per day, it is the most important producer of this type of glass in the world. The traditional hand-cutting technique has been used in Moser for 166 years and has made its products famous all over the world. The lead-free crystal pieces from their Karlovy Vary glassworks are part of the collections at Prague Castle and many royal palaces, such as in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Spain and Jordan. The Preciosa national enterprise was founded in the late 1940s by merging 25 glassworks of the Jablonec, Liberec and Turnov regions, and they continue to produce world-renown glass, light and jewelry components, as well as glass for decorative and technical purposes.
Among successful porcelain manufacturers who have managed to keep production going to this day are Thun, G. Benedikt Group and Český porcelán Dubí. Thun is the oldest and largest Czech porcelain producer and currently comprises three factories located in north-west Bohemia. Exporting products around the world, the G. Benedikt Group of Karlovy Vary is one of the most respected manufacturers of hotel porcelain dinnerware. Under the name Karlovarský porcelán, the company declared insolvency in 2002 but was subsequently bought by a new investor along with its subsidiary companies, Langenthal and Lilien. The new owner decided to use the original company name referring to the founders – the Benedikt brothers – and took advantage of the favorable situation. By acquiring three reputable brands, G. Benedikt Group in fact has access to three domestic markets: the Czech, Austrian and Swiss, which account for half of its total production. And last year, the company acquired Rudolf Kämpf, the last Czech manufactory producing handmade porcelain. The new owner’s vision is focused on significantly innovating the existing methods and their integration into established production processes. And the Český porcelán Dubí company is also doing everything to preserve the famous “Blue Onion” pattern. Printing on an impressive 660 shapes of tableware, the company is one
of the four producers in the world who make porcelain decorated with this onion pattern. In addition to the traditional white and blue porcelain, the company also produces over one hundred mug shapes decorated with five thousand different patterns.
FRESH NAMES ON THE SCENE
New companies have emerged alongside the long-established ones, such as Bomma and Lasvit. Originally located in Světlá nad Sázavou, Bohemia Machine started as a manufacturer of glassmaking machines used mainly for automated decorative cutting. But in 2010, the company launched its own brand of drinking glasses, Bomma, which gradually led to the production of crystal glass luminaires. Today, it is one of the most successful Czech manufacturers of designer lighting. Lasvit is a younger company and a competitor for Bomma. The company’s name was created from the combination of the Czech words “láska” (love) and “svit” (light), and soon became dear to clients in the European, Asian and American markets. It is currently the most successful Czech exporter of special glass installations. Previously unthinkable designs, mobile crystal sculptures and glass facades are designed in eleven Lasvit branches located around the world, all made in Czech glassworks. Lasvit has managed to promote the know-how of small workshops and large glassworks, and in 2017 it also acquired the Ajeto manufactory in Lindava, specializing in artistic glassmaking. Lasvit also focuses on collaborations with world design leaders such as Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, Kengo Kuma, Campana Brothers and Nendo, whose involvement in Ajeto projects draws attention to the Czech glassmaking craft and helps restore the luster of the established terms “Bohemia Glass” and “Czech Made”.
A LONG WAY TO GO: THE POWER OF INNOVATION
There is one thing that porcelain factories and glassworks have in common – their operation practically never stops. In the glassworks, mixtures of raw material would harden and expensive furnaces would be damaged; in porcelain factories, any decrease in production would mean increased costs of getting the whole operation up and running again. Work starts as early as five o’clock in the morning and involves several shifts. The core of every glassworks is a firebrick melting furnace where the glass is prepared at a temperature of around 1500 degrees Celsius in one or more glass melting tanks (depending on the number of colors). Similar temperatures also have to be maintained in the kilns of porcelain factories, and these kilns are also designed for continuous production.
This type of production is associated with high demands on electricity and gas consumption, the cost of which increased several times during the energy crisis. “At the beginning of 2021, the wholesale price per MWh was around 20 euros, in June 2022 it was already 100 euros per MWh, from which it rose to 300 euros per MWh. Within two years, the price increased fivefold and then threefold. These were changes that nobody had expected. This was an unprecedented situation in the history of the entire industry and, as a result, we had to raise the product prices, while also dramatically optimizing production costs,” comments Radek Horčička from Český porcelán Dubí. The company’s immediate response was to increase the prices dramatically on its main markets (by 20 % in the Czech Republic, 40 % in Germany and as much as 60 % in Korea) and relocate the production of the traditional Royal Dux Bohemia porcelain figures from the Duchcov branch (its production had been running uninterrupted since 1853) to the Dubí plant. The company is also planning to sell their Duchcov premises. The crisis has forced the porcelain factory G. Benedikt Group of Karlovy Vary to adopt the strategy of more conceptual planning and reassessment of input costs. “We are preparing to invest in solar panels and switch from natural gas to liquefied propane butane. Both changes will allow us to divide our energy consumption among more suppliers and to stabilize our expenses. The use of more productive technologies will reduce our costs and we will not have to make our products more expensive,” says Ivana Záškodová, the marketing and sales manager of G. Benedikt. The pandemic in particular had a devastating impact on the company. Since it manufactures products for the catering industry, the company lost 70 % of its business overnight. “The Covid-19 pandemic showed us how important it is to focus on the end customer. And we want to continue doing exactly that. Even in 2008 and 2009, we fought the economic crisis with investments and it paid off. During the pandemic, we therefore expanded our portfolio and also bought two companies – Adekor in Chodov and Rudolf Kämpf in Loučky.”
Lasvit has dealt with the crisis in a similar way, deciding to counter it by investing in its own production. Towards the end of 2022, the company purchased a fusing furnace for fused glass. It is one of the largest furnaces of this kind in Europe and is unparalleled in the Czech Republic. It allows more efficient energy management during the production of a specific type of glass, while offering new ways of using glass in architecture. Martin Wichterle, the owner of the Bomma glassworks, is also optimistic and perceives the crisis as an opportunity: “I think the crisis is making the clients think about what they spend their money on. It can mean a return to more valuable things, to quality.”
On the other hand, the oldest operating glassworks in Harrachov has run into difficulties. It celebrated the 310th anniversary of its foundation by temporarily shutting down its production because of the unprecedented rise in energy prices. The owner had the furnace out of operation for two months and laid off most of the ninety employees. “While in 2022 we bought gas at an average price of 200 euros per MWh, for 2023 we managed to secure a supply at a significantly lower price of 26 euros. With an annual consumption of around 8,000 MWh of gas, our costs rose from 200,000 to more than 900,000 euros,” explains the owner of the Harrachov glassworks, Mr. František Novosad. The crisis had tragic consequences for the long-established Egermann glassworks. In the early 19th century, its founder enhanced glass production by making use of the method of glazing, in particular red and yellow glass staining, and the technology known as lithyalin, based on the use of opaque colored glass to produce a marbled effect imitating precious stones. The glassworks could not cope with the pressure of ever-increasing energy prices, was unable to make its traditional ruby glass attractive enough for the 21st century customers, and towards the end of 2022 they decided to close the production down for good.
THE WORLD OF GLASS AND PORCELAIN IS FASCINATING, BUT IT TAKES COURAGE
Glassworks and porcelain factories are Czechia’s national treasure. People often become captivated on their very first visit. However, history shows us that when companies stop innovating, the love of craft alone will not save them. A functioning factory is a set of tiny cogs that must fit together perfectly, and they mustn’t be thrown out of synch by the changing socio-cultural conditions.
Recent developments show that Czech glassworks and porcelain factories are not giving up. The glassmakers in particular are making excellent progress. As for hand-cut and blown glass, there is a true revival of these techniques and, apart from the masterful skills of their craftspeople, glassworks are starting to closely cooperate with designers, employ sophisticated marketing strategies and foster connections around the world. But Czech porcelain factories are, at present, still lacking in design innovation, often producing the same shapes and using the same motifs for decades, and seem hampered by their unwillingness to try new things.
But to be fair, it must be said that reating a new shape is a relatively quick process in the glass industry, whereas with porcelain it is lengthy and expensive. As Klára Hegerová writes: “The glass industry had the opportunity to rise from the ashes thanks to its connection to architecture. Companies like Lasvit and Preciosa are immensely successful abroad, but their core product range consists in large interior installations. By contrast, the producers of porcelain goods – mostly small utilitarian or decorative objects – are unable to compete with other manufacturers. At Czech design shows, we can see a strong generation of talented young artists working with porcelain, but they usually arrange the production of their artworks themselves. In the case of the existing factories, it is possible to say there is a kind of fear of modern production and perhaps even a reluctance to sell contemporary porcelain objects. I think it is a pity that Czech porcelain producers do not engage Art Directors from among renowned designers, as Czech glassworks do quite often. The new wave of Czech porcelain has not yet arrived.” The transformation of porcelain production has been very slow, which is a pity. Clinging to the way things are makes this fragile material into an excessively fragile business.