The company was founded by the Dartington Hall Trust, a charity which aimed to assist the economic regeneration of rural areas through business, education, the arts and country crafts. The trust was originally set up in the 1920s by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst at Dartington Hall, South Devon.
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 and the factory opened in June 1967 under the name of Dartington Glass. To start with, there were just 35 employees. Homes were built for the Swedish glass blowers near the factory (Eskil Place) as well as at the eastern end of town (Dartington Fields). The Swedes were gradually accepted into the community and the first marriage between one of them and a local girl took place in 1972. 14 more were to follow over the next 10 years. Dartington would not have survived without the talent and commitment of the original Swedish glass blowers.
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. He also devised a clever advertising plan that helped establish Dartington Glass on the industry scene and caught the attention of their first customers: the renowned John Lewis Partnership and an interesting new shop called Habitat. The company thrived from here growing into a worldwide brand recognised for its quality and design-led manufacturing.
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 glass were made every day with 75% of Dartington’s production sold domestically. The glass was also exported to some 30 nations – primarily Australia, Canada and the United States – including Sweden. Demand outstripped production and the factory had to be expanded and the workforce grew to 330 for a time. By the 1980s the modern image of Dartington had attracted the attention of Wedgwood who took up a large stake in the business, allowing for further expansion.
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. There was a management buy-out in 1994 and the Dartington Hall Trust sold its remaining stake in the business. By the end of the 1990s manufacturing had declined from 20 glass kilns to three, with much of its stock imported under the Dartington name. In 2004 it was taken over by US giftware giant, Enesco, following the company briefly going into administration. By now known as ‘Dartington Crystal’, it underwent another management buy-out in April 2006 safeguarding many skilled jobs in the area.
Dartington products have been exhibited around the world and over the years the company has received numerous design and industry awards. It now creates a variety of unique commissions for high profile clients.
Dartington Crystal 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 supports 140 jobs and remains a major employer in Torrington.