Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont
Simon Pearce was trained to follow in the footsteps of his father, a potter. But he had something else in mind. "It seemed like everyone was making pottery and no one was making glass," he recalls. So Pearce set out from Ireland, where he was raised, to learn the trade of glassmaking, traveling throughout Europe and apprenticing in places like Orrefors in Sweden and Venini in Italy. The journey lasted almost four years, and at the end of it, he came home to open his own glass factory in Kilkenny. After a decade he grew frustrated with the red tape and other inefficiencies he found doing business in Ireland at the time and set his sights on the United States. There, he sought three things: a beautiful place in which to live, a factory with alternative sources of energy, and enough space for a retail store—because, as he puts it, "The best place to sell glass is in a glass factory."
Pearce and his wife, Pia, spent a month traveling the country in search of the perfect location and finally found it in Quechee, Vermont, where they fell in love with a 19th-century mill perched atop the falls of the Ottauquechee River, overlooking a covered bridge. "We bought it at the end of 1980 and opened a factory in August 1981," Pearce remembers. "I brought three glassmakers with me."
Now employing 44 glassmakers, Simon Pearce’s namesake studio is one of the last large-scale handblown glass operations in the U.S. There are three factories today—two in Vermont and one in Maryland—but the company has never strayed from the same techniques that have been used to make glass for the last 5,000 years.
Everything in the factories, from the blowpipes to the furnaces, is made in-house. As was hoped, the Quechee location even produces its own power, with a hydroelectric turbine that sends enough electricity back to the grid to pay for the Windsor, Vermont, location’s needs, too.
"The handcrafted tools our glassmakers use are as special as the glass itself." Simon Pearce, founder
The firm is an anomaly. At the turn of the 20th century, glassmaking was a major American industry, with more than 100 pressed- and blown-glass factories in the Ohio Valley alone. By 1959, there were just 35 such companies in the entire country. The rest had vanished, victims of foreign competition and changing tastes. Today handcrafted glassmaking has virtually disappeared, with the exception of small artisanal producers.
James Murray, head of Simon Pearce’s design team, is tasked with keeping pace with design trends and translating the brand’s style of Georgian glassware, notable for its heft and classic proportions, to a younger audience. Together with Pearce, he works on all new items. "Simon and I like to debate things," says Murray.
Most of the craftspeople at the factories are from nearby towns. Apprentices don’t need to have experience, only persistence. "In the beginning, they just try not to get burnt," Pearce says. Their first task is learning how to gather glass—dipping a rod into the blazing furnace and bringing it to the blower. Each new employee is on a path to go from apprentice to journeyman to craftsman to master. It takes about five years to achieve proficiency and ten to earn the highest status.
Pearce has no immediate plans for any major new projects. "More isn’t always better," he says. "We’re not focused on growth, but on excellence."
Blow by Blow
No two glasses at Simon Pearce are exactly alike, but after a decade of practice, master artisans come close.