How can you tell high-quality chandelier crystal? What crystal is the best?

The right crystals on the right chandelier are the symbolic jewels of the home. And traditionally the quality of the jewels says much about the man who has the taste and the economic wherewithal to acquire them. As with everything in life, there are grades of crystal, and -- also as with most things  -- you generally speaking get what you pay for. 

Generally, poor crystal reveals itself not by its qualities but in the gaudiness and cheapness that surrounds it. But if you separate the crystal -- could you tell good crystal from the cheap stuff?

What does good quality crystal look like?
Our industrial lighting aesthetic largely incorporates raw industrial pipe and glamorous high-quality Bohemian crystal – to provide a complimentary unified whole – so a heavy emphasis is placed on this high-quality crystal to provide that signature Michael McHale Designs industrial chic beauty.  Interior designers and other subject matter experts place heavy emphasis on crystal quality when making the purchasing decision for a modern chandelier.

What’s crystal made of?

At root, crystal is comprised of two basic ingredients — silica (sand) and lead oxide.  Lead oxide is added to a basic glass mixture (silica, potash) in order for the light passing through to refract. Leaded glass contains from 5-20% lead content.  Once the lead content gets above 20%, it is considered crystal.  The maximum lead content for crystal is about 30%, which allows for greatest refraction of light.  While that 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.) 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).

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 than the raw ingredients in determining crystal quality.

What to watch out for:

Obviously, the raw ingredients are heated to extremely high temperatures.  Everyone has seen images of hot glass in liquid form glowing bright orange, and that is how crystal is created.

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.

Cheap crystal from China or elsewhere can often show striations and bubbles
The other thing to watch out for is bubbles.   Cheaper crystal can often have a tiny bubble or two trapped inside.  High quality modern chandeliers incorporate high quality crystal to ensure optical purity.

Optical Purity in Chandelier Crystals

When crystal is free of flaw such as these, it is called “optically pure” meaning that light is able to pass through the crystal without being distorted by flaws.  The manufacturer will control the manufacturing and cooling process so that each crystal cools in a controlled way.  Quality inspectors will ensure that there are no bubbles or other flaws which would compromise quality.

McHale Chandeliers use top-quality optically pure bohemian crystal.

What about Swarovski Crystal?

Chances are if you have heard of any “brand” of crystal, it’s Swarovski.  My wife and I were recently on our honeymoon, and had a layover in Singapore.  The first name we saw when we came out of the airport was Swarovski.  They seem to be everywhere these days.

At Michael McHale Designs, we love Swarovski crystal.  It is without a doubt some of the finest crystal available.  The only downside to Swarovski crystal is, of course, 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 is the way to go.

We can make any of our fixtures with Swarovski crystal. Most of our customers, though, opt for our optically pure Bohemian crystal.  This crystal is also 30% leaded for maximum refraction and also optically pure –  just without the Swarovski brand name.  It would take a very sophisticated eye to tell the difference.

A note on our colored crystal options (which are options for our Industrial and Bryce Collections): When it comes to colored crystal, Swarovski has no peer in terms of clarity and brightness.   So if you order colored crystal from us, it will always be Swarovski.