Crystal glasses are used for a variety of beverages, from wine to port to water. There are several different types of crystal glasses, including lead crystal, non-lead crystal, blown crystal and cut crystal. Crystal glasses are delicate and must be handled with care. There are health concerns regarding crystal because of its lead content, so certain precautions should be taken with it.
Crystal glasses are available in both lead and lead-free varieties. Both types are made with sand (silica), soda ash (sodium carbonate) and limestone (calcium carbonate). The replacement of limestone with lead is what creates lead crystal. Non-lead crystal is created by the replacement of limestone with barium oxide. Both barium oxide and lead give extra brilliance and clarity to crystal and differentiate it from plain glass. Lead crystal is considered the only type of true crystal, and non-lead crystal is merely considered a very brilliant form of glass.
Creating blown crystal glasses is accomplished either by machine or by mouth. Machines make blown crystal glasses by pressing molten crystal into a mold. Mouth-blown crystal glasses are made when a person blows through a tube with the molten crystal placed on the end to achieve the desired shape. Wine and champagne flutes are the most common type of blown crystal glasses available, and they come in specific shapes and sizes according to the varietal of wine.
Cut crystal glasses are first blown into the desired shape. Then designers trace a pattern onto the surface of the glass and an artisan carves the glass using a carving wheel. Creating cut crystal is a multi-step process, but the end result is a glass with a pattern of grooves that reflect light in an extraordinary way. Cut crystal glasses are available for liquor, beer, water, wine and champagne.
Crystal glasses are sensitive to changes in temperature and can easily shatter when their temperature changes too quickly. Always hand wash crystal glasses, and make sure the dishwater does not vary too much from the air temperature. Never pour an ice cold or steaming hot liquid into a crystal glass, as that can cause shattering as well. Crystal is also softer than glass and can scratch easily, so always use a soft cloth to wipe crystal glassware.
The lead in crystal glasses may pose health risks. Researchers from Columbia University found that lead leaches from crystal glasses into wine and spirits. Health Canada has some good guidelines for minimizing the risks associated with lead crystal, including not storing liquids in crystal containers or decanters, not serving pregnant women or children food or drink from lead crystal, and soaking new lead crystal in vinegar for 24 hours prior to using it for the first time.