The roads of southeastern Ireland meander past ruined abbeys, thatched-roof cottages, sandy coves, and flocks of sheep. While this part of the country is known for these pastoral scenes, it's mostly famous for what put its prosperous port city, Waterford, on the map: crystal.
Crystal originates through much the same process as glass: with a hot fire, a blowpipe, fine sand, potash, and just a few other ingredients. The difference is that lead oxide is added to crystal, making up 11 to 33 percent of the mix. It's the lead that accounts for crystal's most beloved attributes: its ability to refract light when cut into facets, its heft, and the pleasing bell-like tone it produces when you flick it with your finger. Add to that the reputation that Irish artisans hold as crystal cutters and engravers, and you've got a recipe for some of the world's most esteemed tableware.
Glass was used in Ireland as early as the sixth century, when artisans coated chalices, brooches, and ceremonial objects with intricate glass designs, imitating gemstones. Though their work was very different from the clear crystal that would eventually dominate Ireland's heritage, these medieval artisans demonstrated a stunning mastery of their material. It wasn't until the 1600s that several non-Irish glassmakers brought to Ireland the kind of large-scale glass enterprises that were already flourishing in England and continental Europe. These glassworks employed skilled artisans and supplied people with lead glass for everyday needs, from tankards to windows.
English tax laws and export regulations prevented Irish crystal from being exported outside of Ireland until the 1780s, when the English Parliament allowed the Irish to trade freely. At that time the Penrose family revived an old glassworks in Waterford, an important port city, and began establishing a reputation for quality cut and engraved glass. Several glasshouses opened in Dublin and other Irish cities. The reputation of Irish glassmakers for their cutting skills began spreading across Europe and eventually to America, which is today the largest consumer of Irish crystal.