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A clear future

After a flirtation with closure this spring, things look bright for NovaScotian Crystal

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Since reopening this spring, NovaScotian Crystal looks to a bright future—and has the local support to get there.

It was a show of support that most businesses only dream about. When NovaScotian Crystal announced in February that it would be going out of business after 17 years operating on the Halifax waterfront, customers showed their loyalty with an outpouring usually reserved for celebrities. They lined up for hours on a cold, rainy Saturday to buy the showroom’s stock.

By the end of the day, production was in full swing again and company ledgers were bursting with new orders. For Anne Campbell, one of NovaScotian Crystal’s founders, it was clear: this is a company worth saving.

Campbell had recently retired from a successful career in the financial industry and was looking for a new project. NovaScotian Crystal needed her for the same reason that it did the first time: to help keep an ancient industry alive. She decided to buy back the company she helped build. “It tugged at my heartstrings,” she says, “but it wasn’t an emotional decision. It was a good business decision. The company has a strong brand and a loyal customer base.”

It had something even more precious—tradition.

NovaScotian Crystal was conceived one night in a pub in Tipperary, when an Irish-Canadian music icon bought one of Ireland’s last great crystal makers an ale. It was 1993 and Denis Ryan was home in Ireland visiting his mother. Automation was taking over the crystal business, leaving master craftsmen like Philip Walsh agonizing over the death of the craft they loved. Walsh was struggling to keep it alive, working to get his own small shop off the ground and talking up the business to anyone who would listen. By the time the first beer was drained, Ryan was under his spell.

Ryan knew all too well the appetite that his adopted Canadian home had for Irish craft and culture. After all, he had taken his own traditional band Ryan’s Fancy to heights of stardom that wouldn’t have been possible in Ireland. Why not do the same for fine Irish crystal? It was a couple of years later that he confided to Campbell, an old family friend, about his ambition. “Denis pulled a dogeared business plan from his desk drawer and said he had this idea for a handmade crystal factory on the Halifax waterfront,” she recalls. “I was intrigued.”

Anne Campbell of NovaScotian Crystal. Photo: Paula Bugden

They formed a company, took on other partners and bought an aging fish market on the Halifax waterfront. That was the easy part. The plan came together when they convinced a handful of master crystal makers, including Walsh, to immigrate to Canada. It was like building a symphony orchestra from scratch: a whole business utterly dependent on the skills, talents and artistry of its employees.

The new factory became one of the most popular attractions on the Halifax waterfront—a dusty, dim theatre where a kind of alchemy took place (the merging of lead and glass). The show started with a flash of pyrotechnics as globs of molten crystal were drawn from a glowing 1,400-degree oven, rotated and shaped into delicate glasses, bowls, vases, decanters and art objects by the breath of a master glassblower. Then on to the cutter who carved in delicate facets and patterns using only his eye, his memory and a hand-drawn grid as guides. The finished pieces weren’t perfect; that was the whole point. For the uninformed, the bubbles, lines and varying thicknesses of stemware and bowls are imperfections and flaws. But to crystal collectors they are known as “features,” the very thing that makes crystal collectable in the first place. For those who appreciate handmade crystal, machine made is just a reproduction of the real thing.

Today, the Irish accents that once dominated the factory floor are less frequently heard. Most of the original craftspeople have retired, replaced by the new generation they trained, many of them Canadian born. “It’s heartening to see these young Canadians who have developed into master glassblowers,” says Campbell.

To make sure it continues, she’s relying on her own practiced skills, taking the steps that any pragmatic businessperson would to keep the business alive. She closed the waterfront showroom for 60 days to reorganize and is overseeing the opening of an expansion factory in Dartmouth, where handmade crystal will be produced out of sight of the public eye. The waterfront factory will remain the flagship of the operation, a vital component of NovaScotian Crystal’s brand. It’s visibility and tourism appeal are key to the company’s marketing strategy, she says. “That’s how a lot of people find out about handmade crystal,” she explains. “They take the tour. When they get home they have become loyal customers.”

Since taking over in April, Campbell has been receiving emails almost daily thanking her for saving NovaScotian Crystal from oblivion. She admits that she’s never seen this outpouring of loyalty for a business before. “Nova Scotians have taken the company into their hearts,” she says. “Somewhere along the line, this became our industry.”

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