Crystal, Glass & Sandcarving Part 1

Copyright © 2008 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in November 2008, Volume 34, No. 5 of The Engravers Journal


Highly polished optic crystal letter opener from LaserBits, Inc., Phoenix, AZ.  

   If your business doesn’t offer crystal or glass products, or the ability to customize these items, you could be missing out on some crystal clear opportunities to increase your sales potential.
   If you are a new shop owner, or new to this area of the industry, you may be a little hesitant—and that’s understandable. Just the thought of ordering, stocking and then personalizing crystal and glass products can be enough to make any new recognition professional a little nervous. After all, these items are more expensive than your typical trophy or plaque, not to mention much easier to break during handling. And the thought of learning a new marking technique like sandblasting can be intimidating even to veteran rotary and laser engraving professionals.
   “Retailers who are new to the industry may be more apprehensive because glass and crystal are more expensive to engrave. If they are new, they may have little to no experience with engraving and it is quite costly if they mess up,” says Diana Shih, Vice President of Marketing for Topmost World, Inc., Montclair, CA. “In addition, a lot of crystal and glass products require sandblasting, which is more time-consuming. Acrylics and other materials, on the other hand, can be quickly laser engraved and there is more room for experimentation because it is not as expensive.”
   But is that really reason enough to avoid selling glass and crystal entirely? Quite the contrary. “There is a growing demand for high-end products and crystal and glass are considered high-end,” explains Shih. That, along with the fact that engraving or sandblasting crystal and glass is more labor intensive, means there’s more room for mark-ups, and that means more profit potential to retailers.
   This article series will attempt to help relieve some of the misconceptions associated with crystal, glass and sandcarving. Whether you are a novice who’s uneasy about working with these fragile and expensive pieces or a seasoned engraver who thinks sandcarving is out of your league, we hope the information provided in this series will at least open your eyes to the possibilities that glass and crystal can offer, especially if you add sandcarving to the mix. Here are some frequently asked questions from retailers who are new to the glass and crystal market, followed by answers from some experts in the industry.
Why offer crystal and glass?
   The high perceived value of glass and crystal is a major reason why many award dealers offer these products. While traditional trophies and plaques certainly have their place, they typically don’t have the same high-end appeal and unique aesthetic qualities that glass does, qualities that could open some major, profitable doors for you.
   “Glass and crystal products are great sellers and one of the fastest growing award segments, based on sales we are seeing this year. One reason is that glass has an innate beauty and depth. It reflects light, has good, solid weight and looks very classy when sandblasted,” says Larry Maloney, Vice President of Marketing and Sales for R.S. Owens & Co., Inc., Chicago, IL.
   Mark Zhu, CEO, SCT Crystal, Inc., South El Monte, CA, agrees that these products possess qualities that can outshine many traditional award products. “Crystal can often be a better choice than other awards because it is long-lasting, easy to maintain and clean and, most important, it is shiny and ravishing,” he says.

The Sailboat Award from SCT Crystal offers a clear crystal base. The Luxor Award from Topmost features blue crystal bonded between the layers of clear crystal. Curved glass picture frames from Marco Awards Group can be laser or rotary engraved or sandblasted.

   Not only does crystal have a higher perceived value, it also typically has a higher actual value which can mean even more profit potential for you. “These products are treasured more by the end-users and are chosen more often for long-lasting value,” says Shih. “Crystal and glass products are considered high-end products for recognition, are more expensive and have a higher perceived value than other types of award and gift products. Therefore, they give retailers a higher profit in return.”
   Many industry experts agree that the sales potential personalized glass and crystal can offer shop owners far outweighs any of the possible risks. “There are not many risks at all involved in selling glass,” states Maloney. “The profit potential can be great because, on average, glass awards have a higher selling price than plaques or acrylic. In fact, many of our art glass awards retail for well over $300. Since sandblasting is a more expensive process due to its complexity, the personalization setups and charges are usually at a higher dollar value as well.”
   Add that to the fact that glass and crystal products are extremely strong sellers right now, and that’s a trend that shows all the signs of continued growth. “We offer both blank and imprinted glass and crystal awards,” says R.S. Owens’ Maloney. “We are noticing that we’re selling more and more blank awards as a percent of the total, which makes me think more and more retailers are getting into the glass market and personalization themselves. In fact, we surveyed our customers at the beginning of our new product development cycle this year and one of the top requests we heard was to come up with more glass awards,” he stated.
Who buys glass and crystal?
   The primary target market for glass and crystal products is the corporate awards market, particularly because many businesses and organizations have larger budgets to spend on award programs. They are looking for high-end products that mean something to the recipients and that reflects the true significance of the achievement being honored. If you already sell to the corporate market, or if this is a market you would like to get involved in, glass and crystal awards are pretty much a “must have.”
   “The profit potential and sales potential for glass is very high for those higher-end corporate customers. If these people are your clientele, you should consider working with glass,” explains Scott Sletten, President of JDS Industries Inc., Sioux Falls, SD.
   Maloney agrees that glass and crystal products have special appeal for corporate award customers. “The main benefit in offering glass awards is providing more options to corporate customers. Glass has a high perceived value and is a very popular choice for dealers selling corporate recognition programs,” he says.
   But experts are also quick to point out that glass and crystal products are not limited to the corporate awards market or to businesses that have more money to spend. Thanks to a variety of price ranges and styles, these gifts and awards can fit a wide variety of budgets and customers. Even clients looking for a more economical option in awards can find something affordable in glass and crystal, including sports teams.
   And then there’s the personalized gift market, which is one of the fastest growing segments in the retail gift market. The opportunities here are almost limitless, and can encompass everything from birthdays and Mother’s Day to graduation, holidays and weddings (which, in its own right, can be very profitable).
   “Glass and crystal are widely accepted gifts, and they can be used in a variety of ways,” says SCT Crystal’s Zhu. “For example, it is gorgeous to have crystal items displayed in the house. When a crystal piece is personalized, it becomes the one-and-only in the world.”
What’s the difference between glass and crystal?
   Although the terms glass and crystal are often used interchangably, there are some notable differences between the two materials. Generally speaking, there are three types of “glass” used to manufacture awards and gifts: glass, crystal and optic crystal.
   Glass, which is made from silica sand, is the least expensive and least clear of the three materials. Awards and gifts made from this material are generally available in crystal clear glass and jade glass. Crystal clear glass is the highest-quality glass used in the awards and gift industry. Typically cut from 3/4" thick glass sheets, it is a lead-free, low iron product characterized by high clarity that closely resembles optic crystal, but typically at a fraction of the price. Jade glass has a higher percentage of iron ore which gives it its characteristic green or bluish-green tint. Crystal clear and jade glass are both very hard materials, although crystal clear is slightly softer. A major difference between the two is price; crystal clear costs about twice that of jade glass.
   Awards and gifts can also be made from lead crystal. Lead crystal has the added element of lead oxide which softens the glass, provides clarity and gives it sparkle and a high index of refraction. Because it is soft, it can be blown into shapes fairly easily, but it’s more susceptible to scratches and must be handled with greater care. Lead crystal is widely available in the form of glassware such as decanters, vases, bowls, etc.
   Optical crystal (also referred to as “optic” crystal) is the highest-quality crystal used to make gifts and awards and is becoming very popular among high-end buyers. “Optical crystal is a new and growing trend in this industry. The material is very clear and has no lead content, which means it is less harmful to the environment,” says Topmost’s Shih.
   Optical crystal is manufactured by heating the crystal to a very high temperature and then allowing it to cool very slowly, a process that eliminates bubbles and imperfections. The result is a very hard material that is much clearer than glass or lead crystal and less susceptible to scratching. Because of its high clarity, uniformity and refractive index, optical crystal is commonly used for high-precision optical instruments such as telescopes (including the Hubble Telescope) and camera lenses.

JDS Industries, Sioux Falls, SD, offers premium crystal awards mounted on black crystal pedestals for engraving or sandblasting.   This award from Classic Medallics, Mt. Veron, NY, combines optical crystal and metal, a popular trend in corporate awards.

   For award and gift purposes, this material is available in solid blocks which can be cut into standard shapes that manufacturers can grind and polish to a fine finish. Optical crystal is the most expensive type of crystal available, but the price can vary depending on the raw materials used to manufacture it. A lower-grade optical crystal is typically half the cost of higher-grade crystal, but it is susceptible to yellowing.
What’s available? Is there anything new?
   There is a huge selection of glass and crystal products available from industry-based suppliers, ranging from less expensive glass plaques to super high-end art glass. This is an area of the industry that really does have more to offer each year which, in turn, allows you to meet the tastes and budgets of all kinds of customers.
   JDS Industries has expanded its selection of glass awards to include items such as floating glass plaques (a glass plaque attached to a rosewood piano finished plaque), glass crescents (curved glass plaques and picture frames) as well as numerous lines of stand-up glass awards. “The largest selling glass that we have by volume is crescents. They are a low-priced item, so they can fit into many budgets. We also recently started offering optic crystal, which is very popular in the industry,” says JDS’s Sletten.
   R.S. Owens also has a large collection of glass products, ranging from simple glass designs on glass bases to optic crystal awards, which Maloney says are particularly popular in the banking and financial industries. They also have a large selection of art glass awards. “We offer art glass ranging from low-end commemorative pieces on marble bases with easy to laser or engrave plates, to high-end art glass designed exclusively for us by Mexican artist Orfeo Quagliata,” adds Maloney. “Our most popular new award this year has been our Kaleidoscope Bowl, which is made by fusing together hundreds of blue, aqua, green and clear glass chips and resting them on a glass base. This is the first award that customers head for when they see it at a trade show, and although it retails for almost $400, it has had great first year sales.”
   Each year, there are certain trends that tend to emerge in the crystal and glass arena. According to industry insiders, one of this year’s hot new trends is the combination of colored and clear glass. “There is a greater variety of glass awards than ever,” says Maloney, adding that the combination of colored and clear glass, such as a clear glass pillar on a cobalt blue base, is extremely popular. “Blue and black are two very hot colors,” he says.
   Topmost’s Shih agrees that incorporating colored crystal with traditional clear crystal is becoming the hot new corporate trend in the awards industry. “Blue crystal items are very popular with corporations,” she says, adding the color blue is often used or associated with company logos, and businesses normally want to purchase awards that match their corporate identity. She noted that green crystals are popular among those businesses that show concerns for the environment. “Awards can be associated with their corporate culture or operations,” says Shih.
   Another popular trend this year is integrating metal components into glass award designs. “Incorporating metal components into a design brings a more contemporary look to an award,” says Shih. “This new look is more appealing to and is favored by the new-aged businesses, like technology, electronics, etc.”
Maloney agrees these two materials work well together. “The metal and glass combination work great together in that they are both high-end materials and the metal can add even more weight to a glass award, thereby enhancing its perceived value.”
Things to look for in a supplier
   The major glass and crystal suppliers in this industry pride themselves on offering top-quality products and reliable customer service. Some points to consider when choosing a supplier(s) are:
• High quality products at reasonable prices
• A supplier that will stand behind the quality of their products and services
• Reliability in terms of products and inventory consistency

• A wide selection of products with price ranges that cover a variety of consumer preferences and budget levels
• Special packaging options, e.g. gift and presentation boxes
• Good customer service relationship, fast delivery service and quick turn-around time
How much inventory to stock?
   One of the reasons some new shop owners may shy away from the glass and crystal market is because they don’t have a lot of extra money. The thought of having to purchase a large volume of expensive products for their inventory is a major drawback for any shop owner, let alone a start-up, but experts say it really isn’t necessary to do this. “Retailers don’t really need a lot of inventory on hand,” says Topmost’s Shih. “As long as they have a supplier that they can depend on and that has sufficient inventory at all times, you don’t need to worry about keeping large amounts of stock on hand.”
How to display glass and crystal
   While it’s true shop owners shouldn’t have to spend a fortune on inventory items these days, it’s still important to have finished products on hand for customers to see. “Samples are important so people can touch and see the beauty of glass,” advises Sletten. “Catalogs are another important way to show your customers what is available.” Many suppliers produce catalogs that retailers can use to show customers what’s available, or even use for their own marketing plans.
   When it comes to displaying glass and crystal in your shop, light is a major factor. Experts say to display these items in glass display fixtures, such as shelves and display cases, with lights shining directly on them to dramatize reflections and enhance the beauty of the pieces. And always make sure the products are clean. According to Shih, one of the best products for cleaning these items is denatured alcohol, which she says cleans better than Windex.
What marking methods can be used?
   The three methods used for personalizing glass and crystal in the award industry are sandcarving, laser engraving and mechanical engraving. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and each provides a different look.
   Sandcarving, a.k.a. sandblasting, is the process of using compressed air to force a stream of abrasive through a nozzle and onto the glass to etch or carve a design. A typical sandcarving setup includes an air compressor, a reservoir for the abrasive, a cabinet and a dust collector.
   The process of sandblasting is considered by many to be the best way to mark on glass due to its ease, versatility and the superior end results. With sandcarving, you can achieve just about any look you want on any type of glass or crystal, whether it’s lightly frosted images on jade glass or deeply etched designs on optical crystal. You can also create three-dimensional effects by carving in stages, with each stage becoming progressively deeper. With an appropriate photo resist, you can even reproduce a realistic halftone image into glass, such as the face of a person or pet.
   Sandcarving is a fairly straightforward marking method, but it is more time consuming and requires more handling than other techniques. However, many feel that the overall look of sandblasting is of much higher quality than other methods.
   “Sandblasting is one of the most popular methods for marking glass and crystal, in part because it is a relatively simple process that can achieve a deeper etch, which makes the text and graphics more distinctive,” explains Shih. “On glass and crystal, sandblasting leaves a white, frosted mark that is very attractive and provides a striking contrast to the distinct clarity of the glass. It also tends to generate more profits than other methods because it gives the piece a higher perceived value.”
   A computerized or “rotary” engraving machine is another option for personalizing glass and crystal gifts and awards. This method is easier than it used to be as machine manufacturers have made the setup process for engraving glass much more straightforward. It’s also a process that can produce nice results for some jobs.
   Many machine manufacturers now offer glass engraving kits for certain machine models and some even have machines with built-in glass engraving capabilities. Basically, you need a faceted rotary diamond cutter, a burnishing adaptor that allows the cutter to “float” over the glass and a coolant system. Most manufacturers also offer special holding devices for engraving glass items such as wine bottles.

Optical crystal awards like the Super Five Star Diamond from Topmost World, Inc. are considered high-end corporate awards. Glass and crystal products are not limited to the corporate awards market. Photo courtesy of Marco Awards Group, South Windsor, CT. The Duet Triangle from Topmost World Inc., Montclair, CA, features black crystal bonded with clear crystal.

   The third marking method available for glass and crystal is laser engraving. As more and more shop owners purchase CO2 laser engraving equipment, more of them are also using it to etch glass. One reason for this is that laser engraving is highly regarded for its simplicity. Since it is a non-contact process, the only thing that touches the glass is a beam of light. This means you don’t have to worry about clamping devices or water cooling systems like you do with rotary engraving or preparing a photo resist mask or stencil when sandcarving. “A laser is the easiest in terms of learning,” says Shih. “As long as you have some basic computer skills and knowledge on how to operate the laser engraving machine, the machine will automatically engrave for you.”
   Laser engraving can also be used to mark on a wide variety of glass
gifts and awards, including cylindrical objects such as wine bottles, glasses or cups, if you have the appropriate rotary attachment fixture. Keep in mind, however, that laser engraved glass looks markedly different than glass marked with other personalization options. You can get good engraving results, but it does look different and you can’t achieve any notable depth.
   “Sandblasting gives off very clean, fine lines while lasering is not as clean or detailed and will show more blemishes,” advises Shih. “Lasering produces a very light surface etch, and if you try to engrave deeper, you will see chips in the lines or etching.”
   Another thing to note when using a laser is that the type of glass being used can also affect the end result. Glass varies in lead content in the form of lead oxide. Higher lead content will produce more heat which can lead to excessive chipping, flaking and even breakage. For best results in lasering glass, look for products with little or no lead content.
   “Glass can be personalized either by sandblasting or lasering, but sandblasting generally gives the best results,” says Sletten. However, since many retailers don’t have sandblasting systems, many choose to use their lasers. “If you want to laser glass, you should check with the laser manufacturer to see what instructions they can provide you,” he says. “There are many different methods people are using.”
Are there other options?
   If you’re new to the business and would like to get started in selling glass and crystal right away, one option is to start with products designed to accept traditionally engraved plates. “It takes special knowledge, skill and equipment to work with glass, so most of the time you see newer companies starting with easier products,” explains Sletten. He said JDS has recently put black crystal bases on all of its crystal pieces in order to offer shop owners more personalization options. “This allows a customer to either sandblast or laser the base, or simply add a plate since the tape does not show through on a black base,” he said. “It’s one way to allow retailers to offer glass without them having to personalize directly into the glass.”
Jobbing out the engraving
   You also have the option of using supplier job shop services in which the supplier will actually engrave the products for you. This is a service that most manufacturers offer today, including SCT Crystal. “We can laser engrave and sandblast according to customers’ needs,” says Zhu.
   R.S. Owens’ Maloney says that while most customers are personalizing glass and crystal themselves, there are certain times and situations when they want to “play it safe” and have the manufacturer do the personalizing for them. This is especially true in the case of some of the higher-priced items. “I’ve heard that some retailers would prefer us to sandblast our high-end art glass products rather than do it themselves because there’s always the chance that a mishap could unintentionally damage a costly award,” he says.
What does it take for a retailer to be successful?
   As with any business venture, being successful in the glass and crystal awards and gift market involves many different factors. According to experts, some of the most important factors include things like choosing a reliable supplier with good customer service, projecting a “high-value” image in your retail store displays as well as on your website, and taking the time to learn and employ quality engraving techniques. As with most things in life, the more effort you put forth, the bigger your rewards, and that is no different when it comes to selling and personalizing glass and crystal products. This market area continues to grow, so the decision is yours as to whether you want your business to grow along with it.
   Look for Part 2 in this series which takes an in-depth look at sandcarving, the most popular method for personalizing glass and crystal. In Part 3, we’ll hear from retailers who have found great success in selling glass and crystal.

If you are a retailer who has a successful glass/crystal engraving business and would like to contribute to Part 3, please contact Jackie Zack at