The company was founded by the Dartington Hall Trust, a charity which aims to assist the economic regeneration of rural areas through business, education, the arts and country crafts. In the early 1960s the trust had become concerned that North Devon was becoming depopulated as a lack of job opportunities forced people to move elsewhere to find work. The glass-making factory was intended to be a solution to this problem, conceived as a centre of employment giving local people a reason to stay in the area.
To achieve this vision the trust recruited Eskil Vilhelmsson, a Swedish glass manufacturer, to be the company’s Managing Director. A team of Scandinavian glass blowers came with him to Torrington, some of whom are still here to this day, and the factory opened in June 1967 under the name of Dartington Glass. To start with there were just 35 employees.
The factory developed under the guidance of Eskil Vilhelmsson and the Design Director, Frank Thrower, who created some of the most important glassware designs of the 20th century, such as Sharon, Exmoor and Dimple.
By 1970 the Dartington workforce numbered 84 with manufacturing and distribution centred on two large sites in Torrington and the company had made its first steps into the lucrative tourist market. 5,000 visitors passed through the factory in the first week it opened to the public. During the 1970s 2-3,000 pieces of glassware were made every day and the glass was exported to some 30 nations. Demand outstripped production and the factory had to be expanded and the workforce grew to 330 for a time.
Business continued to boom in the late 1980s and early 1990s until it was affected by the recession and in 1992 the factory had to put its 250 staff on short-time, working two weeks out of three. The business underwent a management buy-out in 1994 and by the end of the 1990s manufacturing had declined from twenty glass kilns to three, with much of its stock imported under the Dartington name. The company underwent further takeovers and management buy-outs in the early years of the 21st century and by now was known as ‘Dartington Crystal’.
Dartington Crystal celebrated its 40th birthday in June 2007. It has played an important role in regenerating the regional economy of North Devon. It has had a chequered history going from success through the doldrums to today’s position as a leading tourism draw as the only remaining crystal factory in the UK welcoming 300,000 visitors every year to its popular Visitor Centre, factory tour and large shopping area. It is Torrington’s major employer.