Lynda Hallinan celebrates the change of season by dusting off her crystal collection for a garden party filled with spring bling.
upcycles her crystal collection
Here’s a word I’ve never before heard: scrying. Nostradamus was apparently pretty adept at it, although these days scrying – better known as crystal ball gazing – is a skill more commonly associated with fairground gypsies telling teenagers their fortunes behind crushed velvet curtains.
I don’t own a crystal ball, unless you count the extravagant Lee Broom hand-cut crystal pendant light I splashed out on a few years ago. Broom, a clever young thing once described by The Guardian as “to furniture what Marc Jacobs or Tom Ford are to fashion”, was named British Designer of the Year in 2012, the year he started manufacturing bespoke lead crystal lights inspired by the whiskey decanters of old. (His award-winning provenance, I have to say, cut little sway with my husband when I confessed to blowing close to $300 on a single blingy light bulb.)
Some women covet diamonds; I have a weakness for the glittering lead glass goblets and candy compotes our grandmothers kept under lock and key in their sideboards. Like their finest china teasets and their Sunday best, the crystal was only brought out when guests of a higher social standing were en route for supper.
Though lead oxide has been found in glass fragments dating back to Mesopotamia in 1400BC, and in faux jade figurines from the Han period in
Some women covet diamonds; I have a weakness for glittering lead glass goblets and candy compotes.”
There’s every chance they weren’t eccentric at all, but rather suffering from lead poisoning via their plonk.”
China, it wasn’t until 1674 that English manufacturer George Ravenscroft started adding lead oxide to domestic glassware on an industrial scale. Not only did this lead make it easier to melt and manipulate molten glass in coal furnaces, it had the unintended effect of increasing its refractive index so that, when the surface was deeply faceted, rainbows danced.
For those who had well-stocked liquor cabinets, gout, depression and dementia were less welcome side effects, as lead leached into stored spirits. Studies have shown that lead levels in wine can double within an hour after being poured into a crystal decanter, which could explain all those dipsomaniac sherry-sipping uncles and doolally old ladies of English literature. There’s every chance they weren’t eccentric at all, but rather suffering from lead poisoning via their plonk.
When my maternal grandmother died, my mother inherited a silver mustard pot, a monogrammed gravy spoon, a pewter teapot and a pair of matching cut crystal pickle jars in a nickel-plated silver stand. Mum can’t recall a single occasion from her youth when any of Grandma Clarice’s prized silverware was ever fetched from the lounge cupboard and actually used to serve anyone, but once a year it was all hauled out for Mum and her sisters to dutifully polish.
Grandma Clarice also owned a grandiose lead glass punch bowl with decorative dippers, but that came a cropper during one of my mother’s childhood tea parties. I’m ashamed to admit that a similar fate befell one of Grandma’s pickle jars the first time my sister and I laid hands on it.
Not to worry. Lead crystal’s cheap as chips – and even cheaper if it actually is chipped – to collect these days because, unlike Crown Lynn swans or mid-century Bakelite picnic sets, all that glitters is not gold. Granny’s crystal, to put it plainly, is still wholly unfashionable.
My crystal collection began with a matching pair of decorative bud vases in their original silk-lined box. These scaled-down vases, the perfect size for a twig of scented daphne, a single full-petalled David Austin rose bloom or a tiny hand-tied herbal tussiemussie, rarely go for more than a couple of dollars in op shops. When I buy them on TradeMe, the postage often costs as much as the purchase.
If you’re hosting a spring dinner party, lead glass bud vases make delightful placeholders, or fill a dozen with sprigs of blossom for a lovely arrangement on a crystal cake stand. I’m also a fan of floating camellias and hellebores in crystal fruit bowls, but my favourite crystal collectible is the ostentatious trifle bowl.
Whereas Grandma Clarice’s duck-egg sponges were famous in her farming circle, in our family I am the self-appointed Trifle Queen. It’s my signature dessert – the free-range, four-egg sponge spread generously with homemade plum jam and soaked with Damson gin and a jar of bottled Blackboy peaches from our orchard before being smothered under layers of custard and whipped cream.
Trifle is my pudding of choice but that doesn’t justify the 14 antique bowls gathering dust in my crystal cabinet. Each is impressively patterned but utterly impractical; clearly trifle bowls were invented before fridges, because I have to take the middle shelf out of ours every Christmas to accommodate all those calories.
I’ll never have need to use all of my trifle bowls at once, so this spring I filled them, not with lashings of custard and cream, but with potting mix and elegant phalaenopsis orchids, indoor begonias, ornamental kale, primroses and sweetly scented hyacinths underplanted with baby maidenhair ferns and the white-veined mosaic plant, Fittonia albivenis, which looks like it has undergone an x-ray.
Lined up along trestle tables with a mismatched collection of op shop china, tarnished cutlery (life’s too short to polish another family’s silver), dainty buttonholes and bud vases filled with fragrant early narcissus, these simple but surprisingly effective centrepieces set the scene to send winter packing… and welcome the official start of spring.
Tie tiny spring blooms onto a fern frond with garden string to make a pretty decoration for each place setting.