Cut above the rest: the rise of Dingle Crystal
Master craftsman Sean Daly is restoring Ireland's reputation for quality, handmade, authentic Irish crystal.
In 1998, Sean and his wife made the decision to relocate their family to Dingle, where they had holidayed a number of times. In 1999, Dingle Crystal was born, a studio and shop which proudly carries on the age-old tradition of mouth-blown and deep hand-cut crystal.
It was a huge leap of faith and a massive challenge, but 16 years and one recession later, the Dalys have created something truly special, not to mention very profitable in this small, but incredibly soulful, Kerry town.
"I had a small studio outside of Waterford City and it only lasted a couple of years," Sean explains. "Our seasonal tourist industry on the east coast was really only June, July and August and the rest of the year we were not doing a lot and I wasn't able to support my family."
Sean began his career as an apprentice with Waterford Crystal, where he reached the level of master cutter and designer.
"We used to go to Dingle on holidays," Sean explains. "It wasn't the destination that it is today, so we got here really at the right time and we opened up a store and I got support from Udaras na Gaeltachta. They provided me with a factory and were very supportive in the marketing of the business."
"We have had an amazing time in the sense that we are a small family business and we are dedicated to making handmade crystal - and I think that is the thing that saved us, when a lot of companies went down the road of competing against each other and outsourcing.
"I stuck to my guns, continuously making handmade crystal. Every piece I make is signed and dated by me on the base," Sean explains.
The quality and authenticity of Dingle Crystal has made it a favourite with tourists and locals alike.
"We have shipped to nearly every state and city in the United States, particularly Boston and eastern Massachusetts where a lot of the Blasket Islanders and people from West Kerry would have emigrated to back in the early 20th Century," Sean says. "My customer base is probably 70pc the US market. So we depend very heavily on tourism."
Fortunately, after a number of years during which the recession impacted greatly on tourism in the area, this market has now returned to strength.
"We have been through times when it was all about negotiating with our banks and trying to stay in business," Sean explains. "And we have come out of that now.
"It is absolute bedlam in Dingle and Killarney now, with the amount of America tourists flooding into Ireland - and the dollar is right for them at the moment, so everyone in the crafts industry making products like me is very busy."
Sean believes that keeping a certain level of brand exclusivity, when others chose to go down the wholesale route, has been of huge benefit to his business.
"We specifically stayed away from the wholesale market, but I did build up our corporate gifts market and that has allowed us to build up a name for ourselves for handmade quality," Sean explains.
The Dingle Crystal reputation for authentically Irish, handmade products, produced in Ireland, has gained the attention of many high-profile individuals. U2 frontman Bono and his wife Ali Hewson have been loyal customers of Sean's for a number of years.
Joe Grano, chairman and CEO of Centurion Holdings LLC in New York, and one of the wealthiest men in America, has a full collection of Dingle Crystal wine glasses. And billionaire David Murdoch of Dole Foods, the world's largest producer of fruit and vegetables, has a suite of its products in his home. In fact he once flew into Kerry Airport in Farranfore, specifically to visit Dingle Crystal.
"We are creating a lot of whiskey-tasting glasses and whiskey glasses," Sean explains. "Because Irish whiskey sales have gone way up all over the world, every whiskey glass I make is sold before it is finished."
These days Sean is in the enviable position of having a supply issue rather than a problem with demand.
"I do about 150 pieces a week and I am really considering taking on two new apprentices now in the coming weeks," he says."It is a whole family business at the moment - my three sons, my wife and myself."
Dingle Crystal's increasingly global reputation is thanks in no small part to Sean's tireless efforts to make connections with loyal customers both near and far. He regularly travels to Dingle's sister city of Santa Barbara in California to exhibit his work and promote West Kerry crafts and tourism.
Customers who visit the Dingle Crystal company store can also go on a tour of the workshop and watch Sean at work. This increasing brand recognition has resulted in the company returning very healthy profits over the last two years, which Sean hopes will allow for expansion in the near future, mindful of maintaining his specialised craft.
"We are very profitable at the minute and I no longer have a sales problem which is a fantastic position to be in," Sean says. "That has only happened in the last two years or so because of the recession; things were so tight and it was like cliff hanger, but in the last two years it has really started to turn around.
"I guess it takes as long as I am in business to really establish yourself and get your name out there. We now have a production issue, which means taking on people and that is what I want to do because the craft that I am in is a dying craft."
Sunday Indo Business