Steuben Glass Factory and Store to Close

Date: 20 September 2011
Source: Steuben Glass/
For decades, they have solved the riddle of what to give those who seem to have everything. Pieces of Steuben glass, those quintessential samples of American artisanship, have proved suitable for queens and presidents, brides and retiring executives.

But in a few months, wedding guests and sheepish husbands will have to find a substitute for gifts from Steuben because the 108-year-old glassmaker is shutting down its factory in Corning, N.Y., and its flagship store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. The cause of the company’s demise was a waning appetite for fancy crystal that was exacerbated by the weak economy, company officials said.

“We did not see an increase in new consumers or established collectors,” Ron Sykes, a spokesman for the Schottenstein Stores Corporation, which bought Steuben from Corning Inc. three years ago said on Thursday.

“The difficult economy did not help us in the recovery.”

In Corning, more than 70 people, some of them master glass blowers, will lose their jobs by the end of November, Mr. Sykes said. The staff of the company’s large store and showroom in Midtown may stay on longer while the company sells off its inventory of expensive and often quirky products, like an $1,800 widemouthed piggy bank designed by Harry Allen in Manhattan.

“Steuben was one of the last companies that I know of that was doing that sort of high-quality manufacturing here in America,” said Mr. Allen, whose industrial-design studio is in the East Village. “The end result is you have very expensive products. Very few people want to pay what you had to pay to have a product made by Steuben in their life.”

The store’s closing, the precise timing of which Mr. Sykes declined to discuss, will bring an end to Steuben’s 77-year presence as a retailer in Manhattan. It was still a division of Corning Glass Works when it opened its first store in the city on Fifth Avenue in 1934.

For the rest of the 20th century, there was a Steuben shop in one location or another along the most elegant stretch of Fifth Avenue.

Throughout that period, an engraved fruit bowl or animal figurine handmade by Steuben was considered a can’t-miss present, a sentiment burnished by the choices of American presidents from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of Steuben’s biggest fans. He gave custom-made glassware as gifts to heads of state and also collected some himself. In 1954, on the first anniversary of Eisenhower’s inauguration, members of his cabinet surprised him with a foot-tall pedestaled cup whose engravings depicted his life story.

When Prince Charles married Lady Diana in 1981, the Reagans gave them an engraved Steuben bowl as a wedding gift.

In a less official role this summer, two hosts of the “Today” show, Matt Lauer and Al Roker, presented a Steuben crystal cat to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.

Steuben (pronounced stew-BEN) glass has served as a gift for all purposes for as long as some wealthy New Yorkers can remember.

“Over the years, I have received many, many, many Steuben gifts — bar mitzvahs, weddings, birthdays,” said Leonard Stern, chairman of Hartz Mountain Industries, which owns the building at 667 Madison Avenue that is home to the Steuben showroom. “This is one of America’s oldest handicrafts consumer goods. It’s world famous. It would be like France hearing that Baccarat was closing down.”

But Mr. Stern said he sensed that the company was a victim of a generational shift in tastes.

“The younger generation of consumers is not buying things like this right now,” he said. “I have children, and buying expensive crystals is just not part of their lives.”

Young adults are more likely to spend their money on electronics, Mr. Stern said, inadvertently tracing the evolution of Corning. For nearly all of Steuben’s existence since it was founded in 1903, it was sort of a vanity venture, demonstrating the finer side of the everyday glassware and crockery that Corning sold.

But Corning gradually reinvented itself as a maker of glass-based products for high-tech applications, like computer monitors and LCD televisions.

Steuben had been a big money-loser for Corning for years before the company sold it to Schottenstein, which operates retail chains, including Value City Furniture and the DWS shoe stores. But that purchase was ill-timed, coming just as the financial crisis sent the economy into a swoon.

“I guess when it had to stand on its own two feet, without the corporate umbrella and the munificence of the owners of Corning, economic realities set in,” Mr. Stern said.

But, he added, Steuben’s last location in Manhattan will not sit empty long: Michael Kors, the clothing designer, has already agreed to lease the whole space Steuben filled.

“The price of progress is not always cheap or pleasant,” Mr. Stern said.

600450 Steuben Glass Factory and Store to Close
Date: 20 September 2011
Source: Steuben Glass/

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