Introducing the new Food52 x Simon Pearce Apprentice Glassware, our exclusive collaboration with the Vermont-based, world-renowned glass maker. Every sparkling glass is mouth blown and hand-finished, resulting in a unique design and crystal-esque clarity. We packed our camera and headed up to Vermont to learn more about how our glasses are made and meet the hands behind it all.
For the collection, we tapped the experience of his apprentices to bring you glasses that are a testament to the process of learning a hands-on craft. Apprenticeship is an intrinsic part of the company: Glass blowing is an art that takes years and years to master, and the program gives young artisans the opportunity to learn from highly skilled craftsmen.
The apprentices at Simon Pearce start with a free-form design before graduating to Simon's signature glassware. Though we've long loved his clean-lined, finished designs, we were just as taken with the irregular beauty of the apprentice glasses: perfectly imperfect for any occasion, whether it be a weeknight glass of wine or a celebratory holiday table.
Simon Pearce Glassware is perched over the Ottauquechee River in Quechee, Vermont, the whoosh of a glassy waterfall accompanying the steady hum of glass blowers at work inside the building. The structure was originally an old mill that made flannel and closed down around 80 years ago.
Simon came to Vermont by no accident. After several years spent learning glass blowing in factories around Europe, Simon and his wife opened their business in Ireland and worked there for 10 years. When they came to the United States in 1981, they began scouting a new location. "I was looking for three things that I wasn't prepared to compromise on," said Simon. "One was somewhere beautiful to live and work and raise a family." Of equal importance was a location that allowed the business to be energy-independent. The waterfall next to the mill—which Simon purchased from the state of Vermont—provided the opportunity to install a turbine in order to generate electricity for the entire building. Thirdly was the proximity to urban centers (Dartmouth College is nearby and Boston is only two hours away) so the company had a better chance at a successful retail business. Quechee checked all the boxes.
Simon's glass making career was inspired by his godfather, who displayed a collection of old glass amassed from flea markets and antique shops in his Dublin home. Simon fell in love with the character and individuality of this glass, and wondered "why nobody was making glass like that anymore." Well-designed European glassware was available at the time, but it was "all kind of perfect, whereas the old glass had a lot of feeling to it." So Simon set out to recreate this type of glass, to capture that individuality, that character, and that feeling.
Simon finds the beauty of glass making in the immediacy of the process. "If you take... other crafts, whether it's woodworking or tapestry or jewelry or pottery... you can stop and look. There's time." With glass making, "There's no stopping and thinking about it too much." Once the glass is removed from the furnace, it instantly begins to cool and every action from then on is essentially irreversible. "Everything has to flow." When an apprentice is learning to blow glass, they lose dozens and dozens of glasses, simply because the timing was off.
Another frustrating part of being a beginner, Simon says, is watching a skilled glassmaker. "[An experienced Craftsman] seems to be working really slowly. They have all the time in the world, and the glass is always hot. And when you're learning, you're working really fast, you have no time, and the glass is always cold. It's all efficiency of movement. The skilled glassmaker is not overcooling, he's not overworking it, he's just doing the bare minimum. And when you're learning, you're overdoing everything."
Claire Davey-Karlson (above), part of the apprentice program at Simon Pearce, can attest to that. "Perseverance," she says when asked about the most important thing she's learned in her apprenticeship thus far. "It's easy to quit. You mess up more than you succeed. It's been unbelievably humbling."
Claire has been with Simon Pearce for three years—and plans to stay there. She began as an apprentice and has now advanced to Journeyman, the second out of four levels that must be completed to become a Master Craftsman. The apprentice begins with fundamental tasks, like gathering glass out of the furnace, and must wait to actually blow glass until the Journeymen stage. After roughly three to four years as a Journeyman, one reaches the Craftsman level and gets their own apprentice. And then finally comes the title of Master Craftsman: "You become a Master Craftsman after about 12 years, but it's really when you say you're a Master Craftsman and nobody laughs at you," says Claire. "That's how you know you're a real Master."
This formal training is a very slow process, but it results in the highest-quality glassware. Whereas glass blowers in other companies may try something once or twice, "we're trying it 100,000 times before [we] advance," says Claire. With some of the strictest quality controls in the world, Simon Pearce glassware is truly exceptional.
And this in-depth training pays off for the apprentices, too. After so many practice runs, so many missteps, and so many years waiting to blow a glass on their own, Claire described the feeling of blowing a successful piece as "the most exciting thing you've ever experienced." The concentration required, the precision, the immersion into blowing this one piece, "it's so hard, and it's very addictive to learn what's next."
The free-form design of a Food52 x Simon Pearce glass allows apprentices to watch how glass forms and can be manipulated. Instead of the glass going into a mold where it's hidden from view, the apprentice glass takes shape out in the open. "It's not perfect," says Claire. And that's the beauty in it. "Each one gets better and you learn something from each glass." As you set the table, clink in congratulations, or take a sip with our glassware, think of the concentration, the dedication, the failure, and the feeling of achievement that has gone into each glass. Every curve, every rim, every catch of the light is the making of a Master Craftsman.
We're thrilled to be selling Simon Pearce's stoneware dinnerware in our Shop, too! Check it out below or head here.