Austrian crystal is not a trademark in and of itself, but it might as well be. The generic term is indelibly linked with Swarovski crystals, produced in a factory in Wattens, Austria. The breakthrough that spawned them was more about mass production than individual beauty.
Daniel Swarovski was actually a Bohemian man who invented an automatic crystal cutting machine while living in Prague, Czech Republic. His machine was patented in 1892, and Swarovski quickly became concerned that spies from other jewelry firms would ferret out his secret. As a result, he moved his operation to Wattens in 1895, which offered the twin advantages of a semi-remote location and convenient water power.
Austrian crystal is man-made, essentially a creative cutting of hand-blown glass into every imaginable form of adornment. Swarovski's three sons have continued with the family business, branching out into everything from chandeliers to watches to computer parts to rhinestones and glass beads. What makes a Swarovski crystal unique is its composition. By adding 32% lead to the molten glass (a mix arrived at after considerable experimentation), Swarovski imbued his crystal with a high refraction rate. Later, he developed different chemical coatings to enhance color and sparkle.
The company entered the American jewelry market rather late, in 1977, but has emerged as an icon. Austrian crystal has a reputation for fine worksmanship but is also less expensive than jewelry made from precious stones. It also earned international attention during the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, when a mouse figurine crafted by Max Schreck from chandelier parts morphed into the mascot of those games, as well as launching a new product line of Swarvoski figurines. The company's own corporate symbol has evolved from an edelweiss flower to a swan.
The Swarovski empire has also proved a boon to tourism in Austria. Kristallwelten (Crystal World), a museum and showroom devoted to Austrian crystal, is the second most-visited attraction in the country. Perhaps its most bizarre presentation of is a Mini Cooper "Art Car" owned by an Ontario couple that features a million crystals.