Gibraltar’s glass blowers prepare for a colour-filled Christmas.

Walk into Casemates when a cruise liner is in port, and the chances are you will see tourists photographing the full-sized figure of a glass-blower that stands outside the workshop and retail outlet of Gibraltar’s only ‘secondary industry’ – one of the world’s few remaining glass manufacturers that will produce small batches of customised crystal to order. The works, the shop, and the ‘museum’ – telling the story of glass – are a magnet for visitors… and largely ignored by most Gibraltarians.

“It’s the old thing of a prophet not being recognized in his own country,” smiles Paul Montegriffo, one of Gibraltar Crystal’s founders and a joint managing director. “We are a magnet for tourists – some come back cruise after cruise – but although we have local customers, few Gibraltarians actually come to see the process.”

Across the world this Christmas, as champagne flutes are raised or gin and tonics sipped to celebrate the festive season, someone will be holding a cut-crystal or coloured hand-made glass produced by Gibraltar Crystal. For, in the 23 years since it opened its doors to the public, its master glass blowers have produced tens of thousands of champagne flutes, exported to almost every corner of the globe. These, in the weeks running up to Christmas, are still high on the want list of many of the firm’s customers – folk who have visited Gibraltar, bought local crystal, and order more… nowadays by e-mail or through the glass-maker’s website.

“The Internet has widened our market enormously,” Stuart Menez, Montegriffo’s co-founder and fellow managing director, looks up from the roll of bubble-wrap as an order for half a dozen black-stemmed gin glasses is packed in readiness for fast delivery to New York.
Though visiting tourists comprise the bulk of Rock Crystal’s customers, more than a third of the firm’s sales are exported using enough bubble-wrap to cover a metre-wide path half way round the Rock. This clearly works well, for there are fewer than one in a hundred breakages in the thousands of pieces exported.

With Christmas just around the corner, the sales and display area is a-gleam with sophisticated glassware, produced by a team of master glass-blowers who have produced more than one million crystalware pieces.

“In recent years, the demand for coloured crystal – and particularly for the stems of goblets – has outstripped cut glass,” Montegriffo explains. “Particularly among gin drinkers – who also relate the stem colour to their brands – Hendrick’s gin enthusiasts go for black stems, Bombay Saphire drinkers for light blue, and Gordons’ for bright yellow.”

The steady growth in international demand for Gibraltar Crystal products has led to significant changes to the type of furnace to push temperatures up to 1,180°C. The initial diesel-fired furnaces – built by master-glass blowers Paul Alexander and Stuart Quick whom had been recruited from the UK and are still with the firm – were switched to the more efficient propane-gas, and four years ago a new main furnace, powered by electricity, was built from scratch.
‘”here were several electricity-fired furnaces on the market, but they were too small for our requirements, so, with the help of Paul, Stuart, and the engineer who originally advised us, we built our own,” Montegriffo tells me.

It was Paul who heads the production team who crafted the unique ‘cranberry bowl’ which the then Chief Minister Peter Caruana presented to Princess Anne during her tercentenary visit to the Rock, telling the Princess Royal that the firm was Gibraltar’s “only secondary industry”.

The Volcano range of fine glass art created by Paul Alexander takes its name from the molten igneous flows that create unique vivid reds and oranges

They were fortunate in their choice of site for the works – situated in one of two vaulted former barrack rooms in Casemates, where it was set up before the refurbishment of the square and its surrounding buildings. Though these were run down, the complex of arched rooms and vaults which the entrepreneurs were able to lease and refurbish – partly with European Union funding – provided ideal premises. As well as the two barrack vaults, a network of cellars under Line Wall Road accommodate workshops for cutting and finishing glassware as well as storage for the 20 tonnes of glass ‘pellets’ imported from Germany in 5-tonne batches four times a year.

The even temperatures of the cellars are ideal for the 24-hour slow cooling process for the blown pieces. “If the glass cools too quickly – or becomes over-heated – it can explode,” Montegriffo explains.

Though most modern glassware is mass-produced – by moulding and casting or by computerised machinery that can imitate some of the glass-blower’s skills – the finest glass, particularly crystal, is still produced by hand, melted in furnaces and blown and shaped using the same methods and similar tools to those which the original medieval craftsmen used. Some of this is reflected in the display on the history of glass in the small ‘museum’ which fronts the furnace room.