For centuries, people have admired the sparkling, luminous quality of crystal glass. The two types of crystal are lead crystal, which is considered the highest-quality crystal made, and cut crystal, which does not contain lead and is not as brilliant-looking as lead crystal. No matter what the type, however, a fine piece of crystal will always catch an admiring eye.
The first crystal was produced around 500 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Lead crystal was discovered in 1674 when an English glassmaker changed his formula, substituting lead oxide for calcium. Glasses, goblets and stemware, vases, objects d'art and jewelry are some of the many crystal items people enjoy owning.
All crystal is glass. The difference is that lead crystal has lead in it, while other crystal does not. Crystal is made of silica (sand), sodium oxide (soda ash) and calcium oxide (limestone). In lead crystal, the calcium is omitted and lead oxide is substituted. Lead crystal pieces contain 24 percent to 32 percent lead oxide.
Similarities and Differences
Both cut (or "regular") crystal and lead crystal are faceted, or cut, but cut crystal lacks the sparkle and reflective light of lead crystal. Lead crystal is blown and cut by hand, which results in sharp facets that add brilliance. Cut crystal, on the other hand, is produced by machines from a mold. Machines also facet the crystal, which gives the cuts rounded edges.
It's perfectly safe to use regular crystal containers to serve and store food. Lead crystal, however, can leach lead into objects over time, which can cause lead poisoning. The rule is that food and beverages can be served in lead crystal glasses, bowls and serving pieces, but food should never be stored in them.
Gorham, Godinger and companies in Poland and the Czech Republic make high-quality cut crystal. Some of the best lead crystal manufacturers are Swarovsky, Baccarat, Steuban and Mikasa. Waterford Crystal Prestige is a new line of Irish crystal, replacing Waterford Crystal, which is now made in Europe.