A Guide to Chandelier Crystal Quality: What to Look For When Buying a Crystal Light Fixture
You made the first step: you found a chandelier you like. But what about the crystals it has onboard? Are they good quality? Are they even crystal? Does it matter?
Chandeliers are the jewelry of your home, and it's helpful to consider jewelry as an analogy to determine what kind of crystal quality you want to have in your life. Costume jewelry can be fun and amazing and it's possible that not many people would even notice that you're not wearing the real thing. Yet, jewelry containing real, quality gemstones has a separate value that we hardly need to spell out.
As with most of the finer things in life, there are grades of crystal quality, and you pretty much get what you pay for.
Our brand requires the use of high-quality crystal. We use rough industrial materials to make our chandelier frames, and drench them in in crystal to create a study in rough vs. smooth, masculine vs. feminine, and formal versus informal, which creates a very satisfying message to those who get it. For those contrasts to really pop, we need to make sure that that glamorous side of the equation is made from the most polished, optically pure crystal we can find. All our chandeliers, pendants, lamps and sconces feature the same stellar-quality crystal.
Interior designers and other subject matter experts place heavy emphasis on crystal quality when considering which modern chandelier to get. Sometimes, even expensive chandeliers from recognizable brands have relatively cheap crystals on them. Many people won't notice. Some people will, though. The aim of this article is to make you one of those people.
WHAT’S CRYSTAL MADE OF?
At root, crystal is comprised of silica (sand), potash (a manufactured salt derived from potassium) and lead oxide. Lead oxide is added to a basic glass mixture for its optical refraction effects. Traditionally, lead content has been the defining feature of crystal.Leaded glass is typically used in church windows and for certain applications in older homes and typically contains 5-20% lead, usually on the lower side, as increasing lead content also increases the brittleness and the fragility of the glass.
These days, leaded glass isn't generally used in contemporary window-treatments, but the same basic formula is used in cheaper chandelier crystal. Traditionally, once the lead content gets above 20%, it is considered to be "crystal" - though these days the term crystal is loosely applied to all chandelier glass adornments regardless of lead content. The optimal lead content for crystal is between 20 and 30%, which allows for greatest refraction of light. It should also be noted that lead oxide is no longer the only additive which can produce refraction. Because of restrictions on lead content in the last twenty years by both California and The European Union, a number of crystal manufacturers have introduced "lead-free" crystal, which contain different additives, such as barium, zinc, or potassium oxides, which also increase the refractive properties of glass.
While higher lead content tends to make crystal more fragile, this is less of a problem for chandelier crystals than it is for other types of crystal (decanters, stemware, etc.), which need to be more robust because they are regularly handled. Once the chandelier crystal is in place, fragility shouldn’t be much of a problem, assuming that you’re not regularly swatting insects or bats anywhere near your chandelier. Or swinging from it, as the Sia song goes. But lead content is only one of the factors that indicate crystal quality. The care taken during the manufacturing process of crystal is perhaps even more important in determining quality than the raw ingredients.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING CRYSTAL
Most people should be able to spot acrylic right away: If you are looking at a "crystal" chandelier at Home Depot and it costs $50, those crystals are almost certainly plastic. Acrylic is really light and has a dull finish, poor clarity, and unsharp faceting. Glass is a step-up from clear acrylic, obviously, but has none of crystal's refractive qualities. It's just, well, glass. Because this is a cheap solution, glass "crystals" are generally poorly made, with little sharpness to the faceting, poor polish, and you will often see bubbles inside. If you are reading this, you care enough about quality to avoid both of these options like the plague.
MAKE SURE IT'S CRYSTAL, NOT ACRYLIC OR GLASS
Crystal is a type of glass, and is made, essentially, in the same way -- by heating the ingredients to a molten form. The molten mixture is then poured into molds which give the chandelier crystal its shape. A great deal of care has gone into figuring out the faceting of each crystal, as a thoughtful design will yield greater refraction of light.
Left to itself, leaded crystal will cool like a cake: the outer part cools quickly, and the inner core takes longer to dissipate heat. That differential in temperature means that the inner parts of the crystal cool off later than the outer parts, and that can leave very fine striations in the crystal. You probably wouldn’t notice them on first glance — you might even mistake them for fingerprints. But those tiny striations can distort the light passing through the crystal. Once you notice them, they will be hard to ignore. Cheaper crystal is made without any control of the cooling process, and can therefore show these subtle distortions.
The other thing to watch out for is bubbles. Cheaper crystal can often have a tiny bubble or two trapped inside. Once you see a bubble, you can't un-see it. Crystal is very seldom branded, and often there's no information on the provenance of the crystal on the chandelier you are about to buy. And if you are buying a particular chandelier, you will probably buy it because you like its design, and will have to take the crystals as they come, whatever quality they may be. Still, good quality crystal is worth knowing about, and here are some of the types of crystal currently available in marketplace:
K5 OR K9 BOROSILICATE GLASS ("CHINESE CRYSTAL")
This is the most common type of "crystal" that you'll see out there. If the fixture itself was made in China, it is overwhelmingly likely that the crystal will be of this type. Borosilicate glass is not, strictly speaking, crystal, as its lead content is below 10% (the original terms "K5" and K9" refer to the percentage of lead oxide content -- 5% and 9% respectively). K9 glass should be considered to be of a higher quality than K5 glass.
K9 glass is popular for a number of reasons: It is relatively cheap to make compared to real crystal; it has a relatively high refractive index and pretty good clarity properties. This type of glass can be polished as highly as crystal can be. Additionally, because most mass produced lighting worldwide is made in bulk in China, it makes sense that those fixtures would ship with K9 glass -- an inexpensive option that is manufactured locally.
If you are buying a crystal chandelier or pendant for under, say, $1,500, the chances are that the crystals will be either K5 or K9 borosilicate glass. Consider K9 to be the Toyota Camry of chandelier glass: relatively cheap, reliable, ubiquitous -- it gets the job done. But, given that your chandelier is the jewelry of your home, you may want to consider spending a little more to get something considerably more exquisite -- something of heirloom quality that you'd be happy to pass down the generations. You may wish to opt for real jewelry instead of costume jewelry.
Gem cut crystal generally refers to high quality, "real" crystal, between 24% and 34% lead oxide. There are gradations of quality points within this category, such as optical purity, and polish. Optical purity has to do with minimizing the distortion of light passing through, and the best way to do that is to control the cooling process of the molten crystal.
Once molten crystal is poured, it cools much like a cake fresh from the oven: The outer parts cool down first, and the innermost center cools last. With crystal, those temperature variations can cause tiny striations -- kind of like fingerprints in the middle of the crystal. To prevent this, manufacturers have learned that they can apply heat to the cooling process so that the outer portions of the crystal cool at roughly the same rate as the core. Obviously, this can get a little tricky and adds to the manufacturing cost of the crystal.
Other variabilities in quality include the sharpness of the faceting and how highly polished the surface of the crystal is. Some manufacturers will include a semi-precious metal coating, which can protect the crystal's polish. At Michael McHale Designs, our standard crystal is optically-pure, sharply faceted, and highly-polished.
Ireland's contribution to the world of crystal is the venerable Waterford Company. They mostly make glass wear but do sell very traditional chandeliers made with their signature crystal. Waterford is known for their wood mold technique of making crystal, which requires a great deal of craftsman skill and attention to detail. Waterford does not currently sell their chandelier crystal as parts to third-party artisans, so the only place you really get Waterford chandelier crystal is on Waterford chandeliers.
Murano glass is often mentioned in the same sentence with some of the finest chandeliers in the world, and it's confusing to realize that Murano glass is not, strictly speaking, crystal. It is blown glass from Murano, Italy, an island adjacent to Venice. Over the centuries the master craftsmen of Murano developed a number of glass blowing techniques that are still used today. Technically, only glass blown on the tiny island of Murano itself can be called Murano glass, though you wouldn't know it from the widespread abuse of that term amongst unscrupulous marketers. It denotes a very traditional style of chandelier.
Rock cut crystal is naturally occurring clear form of quartz that is mined from the earth. Rock crystal isn't optically pure, and you wouldn't want it to be. It is full of veins and natural occlusions, all of which makes it all the more interesting. Rock crystals themselves tend to be thick and bulky, and are often paired with very traditional chandeliers -- true to the time and place where rock crystal was originally quarried: in the Bohemia section of central Europe in the Eighteenth Century. It is an expensive but potentially very interesting addition to a chandelier. If you are using rock crystal, make sure that the design of your fixture isn't competing with the interesting nature of the rock crystal. The rock crystal should be the star of the show and shouldn't be paired with busy, over-designed fixtures.
Chances are if you have heard of any “brand” of crystal, it’s Swarovski. Their crystal had been the industry's north star in terms of optical clarity, and refraction. Additionally, Swarovski added a layer to the surface of their crystal making it slightly more dust-resistant than regular crystal.
At Michael McHale Designs, we used to love Swarovski crystal. It was without a doubt some of the finest crystal parts available and we used it in our custom fixtures all the time. The only downside to Swarovski crystal was the price: Having a chandelier with 100% Swarovski crystal can easily double the price of your chandelier or fixture. If price is no object, or if you have a particular interest in the resale value of the piece, Swarovski was the way to go.
Alas, discussion of Swarovski crystal is now mostly academic. In 2020, Swarovski announced that it would be ending production of most of its chandelier crystal to concentrate on their core business of fashion and collectibles. These days, you can still find Swarovski crystal on lighting made before 2020. Some of our old fixtures incorporating Swarovski crystal may come up on auction sites now and again, but otherwise it is not available. This is such a loss for all lighting manufacturers such as us who cherished Swarovski crystal. It was the best.
Like Waterford, Baccarat makes its own chandeliers with its own handmade crystal. While they do have some modern designs, most of their offerings are fairly traditional. Baccarat make their crystal by hand through an exhaustive, time-intensive process that has changed little in the last several hundred years. Baccarat is the byword for expert craftsmanship. The number of inspections that each crystal undergoes to make sure it is defect-free is staggering. If Swarovski was the Ferrari of the crystal world, Baccarat is the McLaren.
We are happy to help guide you to an informed purchase, even if you eventually decide to not buy one of our lights. Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on +1 347 688 0070