Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont

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By Arlene Hirst / Published by Dwell
At one of the last American glass factories of its kind, everything is made in-house—from the tools to the electricity.

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."

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 1 of 16 - The top of the glass takes shape when the pipe is placed in a graphite mold and blown into, as the pipe is constantly spun.

The top of the glass takes shape when the pipe is placed in a graphite mold and blown into, as the pipe is constantly spun.

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." 

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 2 of 16 - As one artisan creates the base of the glass, another gathers, blocks, and blows the material for the cup. The two halves will later be joined. 

As one artisan creates the base of the glass, another gathers, blocks, and blows the material for the cup. The two halves will later be joined. 

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. 

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 3 of 16 - Designer Simon Pearce, shown at his factory in Windsor, Vermont, makes handblown glass the same way it’s been made for thousands of years, by melting the raw ingredients in huge ovens, then gathering the molten material onto iron blowpipes. A finished Westport footed glass sits on a nearby workstation as a point of reference.  

Designer Simon Pearce, shown at his factory in Windsor, Vermont, makes handblown glass the same way it’s been made for thousands of years, by melting the raw ingredients in huge ovens, then gathering the molten material onto iron blowpipes. A finished Westport footed glass sits on a nearby workstation as a point of reference.  

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.

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 4 of 16 - The Westport footed glass is shown here fresh from the lehr, a temperature-controlled kiln that slowly cools the glass over an 8-to-10-hour period. The piece, which was created by design director James Murray in 2013, is a top performer for the company. Murray notes, "It has so much more action and warmth than machine-made glass."

The Westport footed glass is shown here fresh from the lehr, a temperature-controlled kiln that slowly cools the glass over an 8-to-10-hour period. The piece, which was created by design director James Murray in 2013, is a top performer for the company. Murray notes, "It has so much more action and warmth than machine-made glass."

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.  

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 5 of 16 -

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.

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 6 of 16 -

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.

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 7 of 16 - Gathering A pipe is dipped into the furnace to collect enough molten material for the glass’s base. If the pipe isn’t constantly turned from start to finish, the glass will gain an uneven shape.

Gathering A pipe is dipped into the furnace to collect enough molten material for the glass’s base. If the pipe isn’t constantly turned from start to finish, the glass will gain an uneven shape.

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 8 of 16 - Blocking  Next, the honey-like material is blocked, or centered and cooled, using a cherry wood tool kept wet in a pail of water. The process keeps the glass from becoming too "wobbly."

Blocking  Next, the honey-like material is blocked, or centered and cooled, using a cherry wood tool kept wet in a pail of water. The process keeps the glass from becoming too "wobbly."

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 9 of 16 - Molding  A cherry wood mold is used to shape the base of the glass. The mold is made in-house, as are all the factory's tools. 

Molding  A cherry wood mold is used to shape the base of the glass. The mold is made in-house, as are all the factory's tools. 

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 10 of 16 - Making a Pontil  To be able to detach the base from the pipe, an iron is used to gather a small amount of glass, known as a pontil. A cross is then cut into the hot glass, creating the company's imprint. 

Making a Pontil  To be able to detach the base from the pipe, an iron is used to gather a small amount of glass, known as a pontil. A cross is then cut into the hot glass, creating the company's imprint. 

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 11 of 16 - Applying The Pontil Next the pontil is affixed to the base, using a tweezer-like tool called the "jacks" to separate it from the pipe.

Applying The Pontil Next the pontil is affixed to the base, using a tweezer-like tool called the "jacks" to separate it from the pipe.

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 12 of 16 - Marrying Base And Cup The cup and base are then reheated to the same temperature and joined. 

Marrying Base And Cup The cup and base are then reheated to the same temperature and joined. 

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 13 of 16 - Necking  Using the jacks, a seam is created that will be used to pop the cup off its pipe. 

Necking  Using the jacks, a seam is created that will be used to pop the cup off its pipe. 

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 14 of 16 - Reheating  After the glass has been reheated in an oven called a glory hole, the jacks are used to open the mouth of the cup. 

Reheating  After the glass has been reheated in an oven called a glory hole, the jacks are used to open the mouth of the cup. 

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 15 of 16 - Finishing  The rim is then finished using a pair of jacks wrapped in wet newspaper, which enables the blower to feel the molten glass while shaping it. 

Finishing  The rim is then finished using a pair of jacks wrapped in wet newspaper, which enables the blower to feel the molten glass while shaping it. 

Master Glassmaker Simon Pearce's Sustainable Factory in Vermont - Photo 16 of 16 -  Checking  A final inspection ensures that the dimensions are correct, although handmade glass will never be exact. 

 Checking  A final inspection ensures that the dimensions are correct, although handmade glass will never be exact.