LAST weekend around 40 dedicated collectors of Caithness Glass products visited Crieff for a special weekend of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the world-renowned maker of paperweights and art glass. Strathearn Herald reporter CLARE DAMODARAN got a sneak preview of the weekend’s festivities when she spent a day in the life of lead designer Sarah Peterson.
Each and every Caithness paperweight is genuinely a work of art. There is no factory production line - everything you see is individually handcrafted. It’s fair to say that when I arrived at Caithness Class to spend a day in the life of Sarah Peterson and the team I had next to no understanding of the processes involved in producing the wide range of unique pieces of glasswork that they do.
Lead designer Sarah has over twenty years’ experience with the company, having started out in the factory shop when she was fifteen. She works within a production team of ten, all based in the Crieff factory. The team has recently expanded with the factory floor size increasing and new members of staff being taken on to meet demand. Seventeen boxes containing hundreds of paperweights are manufactured every week for distribution through head office, Dartington Crystal in Devon.
Sarah explained a typical day to me. “I start about 8am and usually spend around five or six hours each day making my own samples and working on new designs.
“I work on sketches in notebooks and also on spec sheets for existing products. The design and manufacturing side of things is the best bit of the whole process.
“We launch two ranges every year, one in January and one in the summer time, so I am continuously working on new designs for the new ranges. I have to come up with around 100 new products for the January launch and about half that for the summer launch so it is very much an ongoing process.”
I asked Sarah where she got her inspiration from to come up with so many ideas. “It could be anything,” she said, “a new spin on existing designs for example, or themes such as the Royal Wedding earlier this year, the year of Homecoming a couple of years ago or the Olympics and Queen’s diamond jubilee next year.
“We are given briefs for some events and themes - for example, we supply products to companies such as John Lewis and Fortnum and Mason in London and have to work to their chosen colour palates for any given season - but I also have an idea of our customers in my head. There is the traditional Caithness Glass collector, such as those who are coming to Crieff this weekend, and there is also the Sarah P range, which is slightly more modern and funky.”
The Caithness Glass Paperweight Collectors’ Society has over 1000 members throughout the world and has been going for over 40 years - almost as long as the company itself has been making paperweights.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Caithness Glass, 36 members of the Collectors’ Society have been lucky enough to have been selected to come to the factory and experience a day in the life there. As well as having the chance to purchase some exclusive one-off designs - named and hand engraved as edition “1 of 1”, they will also get to make their own paperweights.
Caroline Hill, retail manageress at Crieff Visitor Centre, is responsible for the shop and viewing gallery at Caithness Glass. She insists that every member of staff in the centre has a chance to make a paperweight as it gives them a much greater understanding of the processes involved and helps them to sell the products in the shop.
Anyone over sixteen can make a paperweight and despite the terrifyingly hot temperatures involved I agreed to give it a shot.
The main furnace in which the glass is sourced from is at a constant heat of around 1085 degrees Celsius. It burns constantly, often until the ceramic pot inside it cracks from the extreme temperature. Production at the factory stops for two weeks while it is replaced, usually around every six months or so.
The master glass makers, five of them, have to work quickly, building up layers of glass around long iron rods before the molten glass cools down and eventually becomes too cool to be worked. There truly is an art to the way each of the team works the glass, heating it, moulding it, removing the imperfections, reheating it, adding colours and all the while moving effortlessly around each other, seemingly knowing exactly where each other is at all times.
Sarah explains: “Each glass maker has designs allocated to them which they then produce. And although the designs for each product are the same, because each item is individually handcrafted they are all a little bit different. Every member of the production team has slightly different areas of expertise, such as millefiori and lampwork or sandblasting and sculptural pieces for example. And we all have very good spacial awareness!”
I chose the three colours that were to be incorporated into the paperweight I was working on from a corner of the factory that has so many different shades and colour permutations it reminded me of the paint section in B&Q. The colours are made up of bits of crushed glass cut to various grades of fineness in order to create different effects within the paperweight; apparently you can’t add anything that isn’t glass into glass as it makes it crack, so all the colours and designs you see are all glass themselves.
So it was off to the furnace to get my blob of molten glass which Sarah helped me to mould and manipulate into my own unique “design”. The iron rods are surprisingly heavy and the heat is intense. Sarah says their skin is “like leather” but there is something amazing about working the elemental glass and coming up with something beautiful. I can see why Sarah loves it so much.
The paperweights are cooled slowly overnight in a kiln set at 525 degrees Celsius; if they cooled down any quicker they would explode, and from there they are taken through to the new part of the factory where paperweights are finished. Here glass cutter Martin Murray painstakingly smoothes and polishes the rough edges away using a variety of tools. Sarah describes Martin as the “plastic surgeon” of paperweights, cutting and polishing them to make them beautiful.
I then met Linda Campbell who painstakingly creates complex designs in tiny detail for inclusion in the paperweights.
She said: “There is something of a misconception that the goods are mass produced but they really aren’t. What we do here is very crafty, the production runs very limited. It is very labour intensive.”
As I left, Sarah said: “I knew when I was fifteen that I wanted to work with glass. It is my passion and I love what I do and I think the same can be said for everyone here. Once you are involved with glass you stay with glass.”