NY's Steuben Glass company closes lone factory

AP News
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Posted: Nov 29, 2011 4:20 PM
NY's Steuben Glass company closes lone factory

It's the end of the line for the Steuben Glass company, an American icon of handcrafted crystal for more than a century.

The company's lone factory in Corning, in western New York, shut down on Tuesday, ending a high-end glassmaking tradition dating to 1903. Most of the company's 60 workers were axed, but a few found jobs at glass pioneer Corning Inc., Steuben's former owner.

Like fine diamonds, clear-as-water Steuben glass seems almost to emanate light from within. Depending on how it's worked, it can reflect or refract the entire spectrum of a ray of light. Other hallmarks are its naturally flowing shapes _ and eye-popping price tags.

Since 1903, Steuben glass has been fashioned into everything from fruit bowls and animal figurines to one-of-a-kind sculptures bestowed as official gifts of American presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. Art objects can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The matchlessly transparent Steuben lead crystal is still being sold at its flagship store in New York City. Owner Schottenstein Stores Inc. said sales have been brisk enough to keep the store open until at least the end of the year.

"We'll see what the holiday season brings," spokesman Ron Sykes said.

Schottenstein, based in Columbus, Ohio, bought 80 percent of the ailing business from Corning Inc. weeks before the financial crisis hit Wall Street in September 2008. The operator of Value City Furniture scrambled to appeal to more economically diverse markets _ just as other hard-pressed crystal titans have done in Europe _ but Steuben never turned a profit, Sykes said.

Some critics attributed Steuben's slump over the last decade to uninspiring new designs, the addition of cheaper engraving methods and a production shift overseas that squeezed the price of simpler ornaments and champagne glasses from sometimes hundreds of dollars to below an unheard-of $100 each.

"In recent years, the owners did not appreciate the innate sophistication of its younger market, and they pushed too much what they thought was trendiness," said Mary Jean Madigan, author of "Steuben Glass: An American Tradition in Crystal." "In a way, they tried to re-express the same marketing savvy that (former director) Arthur Houghton Jr. had when he said, `Steuben will be bought by people who know to do the right things.' It didn't work for them on a mass-market level, it just didn't."

Steuben got its start when English designer Frederick Carder agreed to run a glass-engraving shop in exchange for the freedom of creating decorative glass. His richly hued creations turned him into a giant of the glass arts scene alongside Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Lalique.

Corning's owners, the highbrow Houghton dynasty, bought out Carder in 1918, but as popular taste turned less ornate, Steuben almost collapsed during the 1930s Great Depression. Corning scientists came up with a new formula _ a colorless heavy-lead optical glass _ and Houghton propelled Steuben into a name of distinction.

The business hit its peak a half-century ago, when it employed nearly 300 people.

In the 1990s, as Corning moved out of consumer glassware into high-tech arenas like fiber optics and LCD television monitors, Steuben began to shrink. Sales dipped below $25 million a year, and it lost money in 17 of its last 20 years under Corning.