Jim O'Leary, Waterford Crystal Design Director, 50th Anniversary Interview - Crystal Classics

June 8th, 2013

Dear Friends,

It is with great sadness that we have to inform you that Jim O’Leary, esteemed Waterford Brand Ambassador and Master Craftsman, has passed away.

Jim O’Leary spent more than 50 years dedicated to Waterford Crystal working his way up from a teenage Apprentice to International Ambassador to become a driving force for both Design and Quality. Described by his colleagues as enchanting and gentlemanly, he approached design as a “whole way of life”. He often visited us here at Crystal Classics during his global travels on behalf of the Waterford brand and we have always considered him a beloved & true friend. He will be missed dearly.

His craft won him legions of fans around the world particularly with crystal collectors in the United States, Europe and Australia. The Araglin collection that he designed, manufactured now for more than three decades, is second only to Lismore as one of Waterford Crystal’s most famous and successful patterns.

Jim was an example for all of us - one of dedication, excellence and passion in his work. He was an example of joy, kindness and compassion in his life with his family, friends and colleagues. Over the last two and a half years, as he valiantly fought cancer, he was an example of courage and humility.

We are certain that you will feel his loss as much as we do.

Sincerely,
Crystal Classics

 

How he started - I will be brutally honest here, and there’s no weeping, but when I was a kid growing up, Ireland was very impoverished, as you well know.  When I was about 10 years old my cousins turning 16 or 17 yrs old were working at a local factory, we called it a “glass” factory.  So I was aware of the factory in the city  -- something really special.  I went to school, obviously, but I did no exams whatsoever and I didn’t go to college. We were a very poor family and we had to go out and work and try to support ourselves.  I was reasonably good at drawing; I’m not an artist, but I can draw a vase for you -- that kind of figurative drawing. I went to the local factory with all my drawings and at that time they were expanding at a phenomenal rate. (This was 1960.) They had about 480 workers at the factory. I joined at that time. They were taking on boys and girls on a daily basis 

First job - I started working on the bench….  The bench system was 5-6 people including the master cutter, two guys that were qualified, and 3 apprentices. So I was at the bottom of the line. My first job was just to make sure the master cutter got clean, fresh, hot water in the morning and was swept up after. 

The process - Lismore goblet has one, two, three wheel operations. If you were to take one goblet and you cut the diamond cutting on it then you took down your wheel and put up another wheel and did the little uprights then take that down and put up another wheel and you do the star. You would spend more time actually changing the wheels. So what we would do, we would do all the diamond work, then while were doing that another guy is starting on the top cut. But if you were to take one glass at a time… That’s the question that is impossible to answer. How long does it take to cut that glass? Most people look at it and all they really see is the cuts. The issue is we melt our own sand, potash and lead. It takes 36 hours to melt the pot at 2000 degrees then the blowing stage. That has to be consistent. It’s very difficult to say how long it takes to do. It’s a whole lot of different things and happenings, polishing, repair work and scratches that come out afterwards. In fact if you saw me cut a Lismore goblet you’d say wholly smoke I thought you said it takes a day to do that but I cut it in ten minutes. That’s only one part of it, of a long process.
- After 1991, we embarked on our program of developing our cutting process with wheels made in Germany it took a long time, 3 years. Our whole world changed then because you could do anything! So you can design a lot of great pieces like the seahorse but you can’t cut it by hand it would take too long and would cost too much. So it opened up a whole new range of design options. The quality today is so much better then when I was a kid. When I made 76 goblets in the factory neither one of them would be actually the same height they would be just a little bit off and the stem thickness would be different.

Design story - I always wanted to be in the design department.  Out of 3700 workers only 6 people were in design.  I was a master cutter until 1983. We had 3 factories. Unbelievable.  Every Christmas you would get piece to cut yourself; free to do whatever you wanted. There would be great competition amongst us and you had to design it yourself. I did a couple of really very nice ones. The head of design at the time, Mr. Havel, saw them and was very complimentary. He came to me one day and said, “We are looking for a designer.” He actually told me, “I think you should apply.”  There were about 60 people who applied. And I got it.
- My first trip to United States was in the spring of 1984. I think it was Columbus, Ohio to Lazarus in City Center Mall, that was my first “signing” event. Only in the last 12 years have the events become such a bigger thing. I sometimes spend 10 weeks at a time traveling. The United States would be my favorite place to travel to. I love the Northeast. Anywhere around Boston and I love Chicago. I love Columbus Ohio. I love it all to be quite honest. You have your good days, you have your bad, your good stores and bad. I experience it all.
- I can't explain… When I go to work I don’t feel like I going to work. I feel like I’m going to another part of my house. It feels like you own the place when you’ve been there that long. I’m the last, everyone else is gone that was before me. 3700 people that I’ve worked with have left and gone away. It’s pretty extraordinary actually. I do still talk to people I use to work with. Actually, I got my name in the local newspaper! More people know me in this country (U.S.) then in my own hometown. No one knows me! We don’t do this kind of thing.

Inspiration - That’s the hardest thing.  We get it from everything -- architecture, color, landscapes, leaves -- from anything at all that’s around us. For example, if you look at Araglin.  Araglin is a little tiny village very near to Lismore. I was driving by one day and I saw an old signpost and it had two flags, Lismore this way, Araglin that way. I said this is really good, why don’t I just change the bowl shape. That was an inspiration right there. People loved it! They got the idea.

Favorite Piece - You know what we have never done? We have never taken our seahorse logo and made a piece out of it. It seems very simple, not like a stroke of genius. Sometimes some things are so simple you don’t think about them. So we did a limited edition hand sculpted and it was absolutely stunning piece. That was the beginning of that. The Seahorse vase is really my favorite. I love that piece… it is a very complicated piece. I did that in 1999.

To Customers - We had a catch line for years “Waterford a way of life…” To me that says everything. Its not just about buying this thing that has cuts on it or no cuts on it. We had a conversation in Ireland some time ago in the design office. We talked about, and tried to figure out, what are the great things about Waterford. And It dawned on me that the great thing about Waterford is that we are and have been at the heart of the home in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, wherever Waterford is sold in a big way since the factory restarted back in 1947. Meaning that the dining table, where everything goes on -- you talk about your neighbors, teach your kids to behave, discuss financial things, everything’s happening at that table -- sitting there somewhere, even if it’s the smallest piece, is a piece of Waterford. See, I think that’s just amazing. That is my hope, that young people would understand the quality and the story behind it all. That’s our mission now: the younger generation. All these other things are fine, but Waterford is the best long term… I’ve had my stemware for 40 years! You’ll have it forever. It tells a story, its gorgeous and beautiful.

Future - The new factory is absolutely going to be fantastic! It is right down in the center of the old city on the water. The factory is going to make what we call the prestige pieces, all the trophy work, and all the bigger more expensive limited type pieces. There will be sculpting and some engraving and, of course, the blowing and cutting.

50 years Special Edition Fanlight - Fanlight is for the 50th anniversary. The whole reason behind the fanlight collection is very very simple, very simple. The idea, it’s lovely, if I may say so. I love our history, the history of Ireland. If you go back to 1783 people like me were living in mud cabins and that’s a fact. We were nothing, we were under English rule and we were kept down. We couldn’t go to mass, we could not educate our children, and couldn’t own an animal. So we worked for landed gentry people who had lots of money and big mansions. But in fairness to them, the one thing they did have apart from the money, and they had colossal amount of money, they did have taste. Even Bill Gates today wouldn’t have the money these people had. They had wealth beyond wealth. They had the money but they backed it up with taste. They built beautiful homes, magnificent mansions in the countryside and then in the cities, like Dublin city in particular you have the Georgian section of Dublin. It’s absolutely stunning. You have these long boulevard streets with one long façade each one a separate house but all giant terraces. The unique thing about them is that they have these magnificent Dublin doors they call them, these Georgian doors. Each of the doors there is a fanlight.
- Now the reason for the fanlight was to allow the light inside the hall. Remember there is no electricity back in those days. So lighting in the street was very poor. Maybe some gaslights along the way but not a lot of light. When they light their homes by night, with their candles, the light would come out through the fanlight. They would get a warm welcoming. If they were having guest arrive for dinner. They entertained like crazy.
So I took that fanlight bc I said this is really Georgian Dublin, Georgian Ireland and we are what’s known as a Georgian crystal. We came from that period. And what did the Irish people need with crystal, only those that lived the real Georgian life had crystal. Only the rich would have it. Today you don’t have to be rich to have a piece of Waterford. So I took the fanlight and repeated it a few times around on the bowls and vases. Turned out that people loved it and got the idea of it and took it to heart. They are welcoming the light and warmth…

In Jim’s house - I live in a small house, very Irish. There is a large garden outside. In cabinets I have pieces from all over the world.  The pattern I choose years ago is Ashling. I have some big centerpieces, a small globe of the world that actually spins -- we don’t make that anymore.  I have some candlesticks. I love candlesticks. I have a hanging ceiling fixture; I can't have a chandelier because my ceilings are too low. I love the chandeliers though. They are beautiful and stunning. The craftsmanship is amazing.

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