Decanters and stemware can be made from glass, lead crystal, and lead-free crystal. It is important to know what the difference is. Why should you care and how it may impact your health will be answered below.
Glass has been used over the millennia. It is basically made from silica sand and other minerals such as soda ash and limestone. Glass is even made when lightning simply strikes sand – this is called Fulgurite. The oldest known glassware found was dated from 1400 B.C.!
In 1674 Englishman George Ravenscroft discovered that by adding lead oxides to glass that the appearance of the glass improved and it was easier to melt than traditional glass. It is called “lead crystal,” even though it doesn’t have a crystalline structure and should be more appropriately named “lead glass.” Crystal is heavier that glass, it has a special brilliance due to being highly refractive (“light bending” power) and gives off a lovely “ping!” When you cut decorative facets into lead crystal, it sparkles brightly.
In modern history, the potential health risks of lead have led to the development of “lead-free crystal glass.” This is made by replacing the lead oxide in production of the glass with barium oxide, zinc oxide, or potassium oxide. It has a similar refractive index to lead crystal, but it is lighter and it has less dispersive power.
Decanters, carafes and stemware can be made from each of these types of glass. Plain glass is generally inexpensive, so you don’t mind so much when you have breakage. When you are hosting a big party and want to make several steps up from disposable cups, glassware is a great way to go that won’t break the piggy bank!
True lead crystal cannot be replaced in terms of brilliance and heft. But wine (and other acidic beverages) may leach the lead out of the crystal in unsafe quantities, therefore you should not store liquors or wine in lead crystal decanters for long periods of time. Use of lead crystal for small quantities of time, say at the dinner table, are acceptable. See the Robert L. Wolke article from the Washington Post dated July 7, 2006 for more detail.
Lead-free crystal is a modern solution to the lead problem and there are many beautiful decanters and stemware to choose from. This, we believe, is the preferred solution.