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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Upper Valley Glassmaker Ramps Up For Big Government Contract

Charlotte Albright
Glassblower at Simon Pearce

Glassblowers at a Simon Pearce studio in Windsor County are going to get a lot busier, and maybe more numerous, as the company starts making its trademark stemware for embassies around the world.

A new State Department contract calls for over 12,000 glasses in the first year. That’s going to mean hiring and training more Upper Valley crafts people, who make each piece by hand. 

The deal could bring as much as $5,000,000 dollars to this growing company over the next five years. Simon Pearce CEO Clayton Adams says he doubts the orders will reach that ceiling, but says the contract is the largest in company history.

“And it’s going to be a real nice shot in the arm for us and our teams here. Most of the stemware that we produce is produced in our Quechee facility, which is our smallest facility of the three we have and it’s a nice comeback story because that production floor was entirely under water three years ago when Irene came through,”Adams said.

So Adams says the contract timing is ideal, now that the facility has been completely rebuilt and made more efficient. Some of the  kilns are powered by a brand new turbine that harnesses electricity from the Ottauquechee—ironically, the same river that badly damaged the property during tropical storm Irene.

Visitors to the store and restaurant often amble down the steps to watch about a half dozen glassblowers at work. Many explain the process as they handle red hot glass, heating and re-heating blobs on the end of long hollow pipes to form candlesticks and goblets.

Production Manager and Head Glassblower Bill Browne started here  about eighteen years ago, after a casual visit to the studio. He left his job in construction to learn the craft that he says is still based on old world techniques. His boss, Simon Pearce, came to the United States from Ireland in 1981 to escape European business constraints and high energy costs. It’s fitting, Browne says, that high quality  glassware will find its way back across the ocean. Over the next five years,  Browne sees this contract  as a gradual boost to the local economy, because Simon Pearce trains blowers with no experience to work alongside master artisans.

“So we’re hiring already for it, I have someone that starts tomorrow. But the actual setting up of the contract and how it comes in—it comes in piece by piece—so we got our first portion of it, which will be about 12,000 stems. We’re going to  focus on that, and then we’ll get another request for more and we’ll focus on that,” Browne said.

A few have questioned the timing of the deal just before the government shutdown, and they have criticized the price of the glassware, which, like most hand-made items, is higher than mass-produced foreign products.

Company officials note it’s also much more durable.

A wine glass sells in the retail store for about 60 dollars, but will be sold in bulk at a discount to the State Department. The contract had previously been awarded to a vendor who was planning to outsource the work to another country. Simon Pearce won it in a repeat round, with some help from Senator Patrick Leahy, because all the work will be done by Americans.

Narrated video of Simon Pearce glassblower creating a wine glass:

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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