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Crystals: All that glitters

It makes bling for teens and cut-glass crystals for the fashion elite. After more than a century in business, how, asks Harriet Walker, does Swarovski keep on sparkling?

Unless you’ve been living underground for the past five years, you can’t have failed to notice a ubiquitous sparkle pervading even the gloomiest economic climate. It comes on phones, on nails, on shoes, bags and clothes; you can buy a sparkly loo-roll holder to match your sparkly loo seat, a sparkly cat basket to match Tiddles’ sparkly collar, a sparkly car – even a sparkly Kalashnikov.

And there’s one name behind all the glitz: Swarovski. Founded more than a century ago, the brand is still family-run and the breadth of its reach and influence continues to grow. From the more traditional cut-glass swans and teddy bears, beloved of grandmothers globally, to bursaries and support schemes for burgeoning fashion designers, from costumes for film and stage, to high-end jewellery sold in luxury boutiques, and from ultra-high concept art installations to the extreme beauty phenomenon, the “vajazzle”: all this sparkle comes courtesy of Swarovski.

In the late nineteenth century, Daniel Swarovksi trained as a crystal-cutter in northern Bohemia, near Gablonz, the epicentre of the crystal and costume jewellery trade. In 1883, aged 21, he visited Vienna and began working on a mechanical crystal-cutting and polishing machine. He patented this in 1892 and revolutionised the industry, making it possible to cut crystal and precious stones to within an inch of perfection. It’s rare that one brand can so successfully span both the woman in the street and the woman who has just spent a week at the couture shows in Paris, not to mention the pensioner in her sitting room and the teenage girl in a maths lesson, but Swarovski has done it, and the reason is simple: everybody loves a bit of sparkle. “

At the British Fashion Awards, the year Kate Moss didn’t show, I nabbed her seat next to Vivienne Westwood,” recalls fashion consultant Mandi Lennard. “The black carpet was sprinkled with Swarovski crystal and the effect was dazzling.” Others remember grabbing handfuls of the glitzy bits when they were strewn across a Versace catwalk.

Every so often brands reach a saturation point – we saw it with the so-called “Burberry effect” in which every Tyrone, Darren and Harvey sported the heritage check – and it’s at that moment that we’re supposed to get sick of it. Burberry opted for a highly effective retrenching manoeuvre, which saw the exclusivity of the label reestablished and credibility restored; Swarovski, however, has no such need – democratisation is part of its USP.

Any business can buy Swarovski crystals (known as Swarovski Elements), and they can put them to any use. Claire Jacobs, founder of Vajazzle.me.uk, which kicked-started the trend for having crystals applied to one’s nether regions, has seen growth of 534 per cent since last year, and developments in the genre – notably, the Leg-jazzle and the Pejazzle (you can work that one out yourself) – mean business is booming still.

“We’re dedicated to providing products of outstanding quality, made with Swarovski Elements,” she says. “Just like jewellery – think of them as a crystal tattoo – Vajazzle body art is a matter of personal choice and it’s very much down to personal preference as to which design they choose and where they choose to wear them.”

It’s this individualism that has helped Swarovski achieve greatness; its crystals are a little piece of high fashion for anyone who wants it.

And at the other end of the scale, the brand has just presided over the opening of a new exhibition in Paris by fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, who has previously used the crystals in his collections. In particular, Chalayan once created a shrinking animatronic dress that disappeared into a whoosh of Swarovski crystals that sprayed from the model’s hat.

Coco Chanel meanwhile was also a devotee of the crystals, back in the days when they were still known as rhinestones, as was arch-couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga. The high-end fascination with paste and costume jewellery, over and above more exclusive but less dramatic or versatile precious stones such as diamonds, continues apace.

Holly Fulton is a young designer who shows at London Fashion Week and collaborates with Atelier Swarovski, the brand’s luxury jewellery arm. “It’s no compromise for me to use crystal,” she says. “It fits naturally with my aesthetic. Crystal comes in one of the widest ranges of colours available; I could literally draw in crystal on to garments. Depth of surface with a pure shot of colour which catches the light. What’s not to love?”

Nothing, apparently. Swarovski’s turnover last year was more than €2bn (£1.75bn), it employs nearly 30,000 people and has 1,084 standalone boutiques, with 889 further concessions in other stores. The driving force behind all of this isNadjaSwarovski, 41, who has transformed the brand’s reputation and reach through collaborations and commissions, from jewellery by Karl Lagerfeld to chandeliers designed by architect Zaha Hadid. She has been careful to place Swarovski’s reputation in the space between design and art, so that the blinged-up mobile phone cases and private parts have little impact on its credibility as a whole.

Swarovski has been present at Design Miami and Art Basel; it will be on the billing for the London Design Festival in the autumn. Working with minimalist designer John Pawson, Swarovski will curate an optical installation in one of the towers of St Paul’s, where an enormous crystal will transform the 40ft space into an over-sized kaleidoscope. The company is also working with Christian Lacroix on his costumes for Paris’ Opera Garnier.

“Since 1939, Swarovski has nurtured close links with the entertainment industry,” says Robert Buchbauer, head of Swarovski’s consumer goods business. “Infused by creativity, refinement and glamour, Swarovski’s collections have made the company a worldwide reference in terms of style and sparkle.”

Swarovski crystals have shimmered onDorothy’s ruby slippers, Marilyn Monroe’s dress in SomeLike It Hot, and Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s necklace. And it’s set to continue: the brand has made costumes for films including Burlesque and Water For Elephants.Next year, it is working on Snow Whiteand TheGreat Gatsby, aswell as creating crystal-embellished tailcoats for Elton John’s forthcoming four-year world tour.

So the next time something sparkly catches your eye, consider its impressive heritage. Unless, of course, it’s the glint of a nearby Pejazzle.