During my two day trip to Innsbruck, Austria – or specifically Wattens – where a celebration of Swarovski’s 120th year anniversary and the reopening of its star attraction, the Kristallwelten (or Crystal Worlds) took place last week, I was hit with a ton of terminology and names previously unknown to me, a supposed sparkle magpie.
Aurora Borealis – that rainbow iridescent effect that you see when you hold a Swarovski crystal up into the light, devised by Daniel Swarovski in 1956 before he died that same year. Christian Dior was the first designer to utilise these magically rainbow light refracting crystals.
Crystal Fabric – Hot fix foil covered in teensy tiny crystals that can be applied to fabric.
Xilion – A complex cut of crystal that means more facets of light refraction.
Crystal Fine Mesh – Debuted by Atelier Versace in 2014, – an updated take on the flexible crystal fabric made with tiny Xilion crystals.
And along its 120 year journey since founder Daniel Swarovski registered a patent for an especially precise crystal cutting electric machine, Swarovski’s strands of business have also sprung out many different paths with its own brand vernacular to go with it. Binoculars, light reflectors on the roads, home lighting solutions, jewellery, electronic goods – the list goes far and beyond the crystal mouse, which most people in the world know Swarovski by.
The point is that Swarovski is keeping the world sparkling, and changing lexicon aside, the one constant is that they make crystal well and that ever since their first foray into fashion sponsorship in 1999 with Alexander McQueen being introduced by Isabella Blow to Nadja Swarovski, there currently is no other raw materials company that has touched as many fashion designers as a solid collaborative partner. That can’t be overstated when significant sponsorship in fashion is hard to come by.
“I live vicariously through the designers and they’re the ones that continuously contemporarise us by bringing their style and ideas to it, said Nadja. “The continuous interchange of ideas and converting that idea to a reality is very satisfying.” But what does Nadja and Swarovski expect in return from the designers they choose to work with? “We choose designers that we know will not disappoint us in the first place. We select designers that have a sensitivity towards the crystal and know how to integrate it in pieces – and not to slap it on and use it superficially.”
And in turn creatives have pushed Swarovski so that innovation and technology can forge new ideas in the realm of crystal. Viktor & Rolf for instance pushed Swarovski to create a black stone, which they previously hadn’t done due to its lack of light refraction. To use a most recent example, Sandy Powell, costume designer on Disney’s latest live-action version of Cinderella, who challenged Swarovski to create a solid crystal slipper comprising of three hand-cut pieces.
We were in Austria to experience Swarovski in its home setting – the past, the present as well as a future that holds probably even more innovative patents to add to the company’s crystal roster. The pieces of all of those crystal puzzles become even more – excuse the pun – crystallised when you see its different components in Wattens.
When we landed into Innsbruck and embarked on a brief walking tour, complete with crystal clear Swarovski Optik binoculars, everywhere you looked was a reminder of why Daniel Swarovski chose to base his production in Wattens (15 minutes away from Innsbruck). Every vista is backgrounded by the snow-topped Tyrol mountains. You’ll get a postcard shot no matter how shaky your camera action is. With mountains comes water, fuelling the hydroelectricity that powers the machines used to cut the crystals (with two thirds of the water recycled on-site).
At Wattens, we were taken down into the Swarovski archives with images and artefacts relating to the brand. What has been primarily a B2B business, the name Swarovski wasn’t fully in public consumer conscious until the 70s when a little mouse figurine was made as a souvenir for the Winter Olympics held in Innsbruck. Prior to that, Swarovski had forged relationships with jewellers and fashion designers such as Dior and Chanel, as well as ensuring that Audrey Hepburn (in Sabrina) or Marilyn Monrone (in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) would sparkle.
There’s a separate crystal and material archive that we didn’t even get to see but you could see some key evolutions in Swarovski’s crystal elements such as the Aurora Borealis effect introduced in 1956 or crystals that have no need for metal settings – things we take for granted in embellishment today.
In the current day showroom, you see a fuller range of crystal application such as the different types of Crystal Mesh, hot fix crystals ironed on fabric and glitter-dust covered Crystal Fabric.
When we’re led through to the artefacts room, that’s where the fun begins. Swarovski bling’s various manifestations on real product is seen in full here. It ranges from the spectacular to the kitsch – Folies Bergère costumes (crystal bras anyone?) to extravagant Oscar de la Renta earrings to Mel B’s spangly arm bands and head dress from her first wedding to Jimmy Gulzar to Maison Martin Margiela’s innovative crystal growth bands. On the mannequins, it’s costume vs. couture with Phantom de la Opera frocks jostling with Pierre Balmain couture. Swarovski’s usage, when placed in the hands of the designer have completely different outcomes and the archives only holds a smattering of this crystal vision.
If the archive is all about Swarovski’s past, then across the road, the newly revamped Kristallwelten looks to the future after extensive expansion. As you enter the gardens, you’re immediately struck by Kristallwelten’s newest feature – the Crystal Clouds, CAO PERROT (Andy Cao and Xaver Perrot) suspended in the air and shimmering with crystals. Round the corner and you’re faced with the iconic face of André Heller’s Giant, inspired by an Austrian fairytale. He looms over Kristallwelten and hasn’t changed a jot. The hint of whimsy and fantastical seen in the gardens sets the tone for this newly designed Crystal World. I never visited it in its first incarnation but this doubled space with expanded landscaping is certainly designed to immerse your average tourist into a sort of theme park experience of the crystal. You need not be a Swarovski enthusiast to make “Wow” noises inside mirrored geodesic domes. I was most impressed with the latest artist collaborations to the Chambers of Wonder such as Korean artist Lee Bul’s mind bending Into the Lattice or Fredriksson Stallard’s Eden Chamber of Wonder where you are disorientated by brass trees and giant crystals.
Inside the ‘Timeless’ section of Kristallwelten, you have a more tradition museum representation of Swarovski artefacts, similar to what we saw inside the archive.
Later that night we returned to Kristallwelten, weighed down by a significant chunk of borrowed bling to fete Swarovski’s 120th anniversary with yet again, the past and the present – an orchestra in Tyrolean costume and a special performance by FKA Twigs.
Yes to blue velvet – vintage 1940s dress from Fat Faced Cat vintage, Junya Watanabe jacket, Valentino clutch and Peter Pilotto x Nicholas Kirkwood sandals
If there’s a lot of names, information and lingo packed into one place that’s because quite literally, Swarovski’s crystals are multi-faceted. But Nadja Swarovski sees the future in simpler terms: “Our motto is one voice, one vision.” Give her time and her creative and open-minded approach for the fashion and entertainment spheres of Swarovski’s business will eventually be applied to the kitschy crystal trinkets. Looking beyond that, she’s also got her eyes on science and technology as fields of expansion. The future is sparkling with opportunity.