Canada's only mouth-blown, hand-cut crystal maker hopes for saviour
HALIFAX - A red-hot glob of molten crystal is dropped onto the unfinished stem of a wine glass before it's carefully massaged into a flat surface amid the whir of a furnace heated to 1,400 Celsius.
It's a beautiful and delicate dance that Brian Tebay has been performing with his father and mentor, Jack Tebay, for nearly two decades at NovaScotian Crystal.
The two men are among the founding fathers of Canada's only mouth-blown, hand-cut crystal maker, but now financial pressures threaten to shatter the future of their ancient craft.
"When you have a piece of crystal in your hand you know it's something special," says Brian Tebay, 43, sitting in an upstairs office at NovaScotian Crystal's production facility and showroom on the Halifax waterfront.
"I don't want to admit it to myself, that it might come to an end."
Earlier this month, NovaScotian Crystal was placed in receivership after announcing it owed about $2 million to creditors and could no longer afford to carry on.
The crystal shop opened in 1996 in a former fishermen's market, a few years after European makers of the precious glass began replacing their craftsmen with machines capable of producing more for less.
Noted crystal manufacturer Waterford Crystal of Ireland had laid off more than 1,000 workers when Denis Ryan, an Irishman living in Canada, lured a group of skilled craftsmen to Canada's East Coast, including Jack and Brian Tebay. Four other craftsman from that trip still work at NovaScotian Crystal.
Brian Tebay began learning the intricate art of crystal-making at 15 years old, admittedly driven more by his empty pockets than passion for the craft.
"I was young and the money was great," he recalls.
He never finished high school, but spent 10 years studying and earning the prestigious title of master crystal maker.
"It caught hold of me. It was amazing ... magical," says Tebay, who now speaks of his craft with reverence.
"It entrances you so much so that now, in retrospect, you say it's in your genes, it's in your blood."
NovaScotian Crystal's production facility, known as Glassworks, is a mainstay on Halifax's boardwalk. In the summer, a garage door is raised, allowing wide-eyed passersby to catch the crystal makers in action.
They watch as one of a dozen craftsmen, guided by intuition, dip a blowing iron into the molten crystal and use carefully measured breaths to grow the malleable blob.
Grids are drawn on wine glasses that have yet to be carved with intricate patterns. In the adjoining showroom, light dances off finished wine glasses, vases, bowls, decanters and votive holders.
About 10 craftsmen will have worked on a typical wine glass by the time it goes from the furnace to the showroom, where it retails for $89.
Company president Rod McCulloch says NovaScotian Crystal's customers pay for the story behind each piece and the tiny imperfections that are the hallmark of handcrafted work.
"The specialness is a little bit of soul that every craftsman pours into each piece," he says.
When the company announced it would sell its inventory and close in a few weeks, loyal customers lined up outside the shop before it opened.
McCulloch says NovaScotian Crystal fell into financial trouble in recent years after using a $300,000 guaranteed loan from the provincial government to open a second furnace. But he says the company never maximized its production potential and money problems only grew when a major client pulled back on orders.
In January, he realized the company couldn't go on as is.
"We have to find the white knight. Someone who will pick it up and take this into the next chapter," says McCulloch. "To me there's a lot of reason for staying here. The community in general wants it to stay here."
Tebay's face grows sombre when he reflects on a future outside the dust-covered production shop where he has spent so many years honing his craft with the team.
"It would be terrible to see something like that slip away and see these guys lost with not a lot to do," he says.
"I don't want to believe that it's over yet."