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Swarovski 120th Anniversary Alexander McQueen S/S 1999 Show
Alexander McQueen SS99Courtesy of Swarovski

Swarovski’s crystal renaissance

Last week the jewellery empire invited the fashion world (and FKA twigs) to Austria to celebrate 120 years of history – here’s what we found out

When Nadja Swarovski studied art history in Dallas, no one could pronounce her surname properly, so she’d always explain it as basically being “Swore off ski”. Today, as a member of Swarovski’s Executive Board, she has masterminded a major fashion renaissance for the Austrian family empire – whose roots date back to Charles Frederick Worth and the birth of haute couture – through collaborations with some of the industry’s most visionary designers, placing the name Swarovski (and its correct pronunciation) firmly in the modern vocabulary.

To celebrate 120 years of Swarovski, the brand threw a little extra sparkle on things with a gala dinner at Kristallwelten, their famous museum and elegant amusement park in their Sound of Music-y hometown of Wattens, Tyrol. Scored by an electrifying set by FKA twigs who wore a dress by Swarovski Collective duo Rodarte and Atelier Swarovski Jewellery, the evening also marked the reopening of the Kristallwelten with new works by key artists, designers and architects. Here are five things we learnt catching up with Nadja Swarovski and wandering the crystalline grounds.


So. Much. Bling. (Obviously.) The Swarovski archives are like an Aladdin’s Cave, filled to the brim with jewellery, fashion, interior and costume design throughout the ages, from the company’s groundbreaking 1931 crystal-embellished headbands to a strand from the legendary Oscars curtain. Neat rows of every imaginable shape, size and colour of crystal fill the walls and the 1956 entry is especially monumental: this was the year the Aurora Borealis was developed, the iridescent crystal mimicking the northern lights which Christian Dior was the first designer to use. Satine’s necklace from Moulin Rouge – used symbolically by the Duke to buy her – is also on display, as are Mel B’s casual crystal and feather wedding headpiece and cuffs.


With the Swarovski Collective, Nadja Swarovski has created a visionary platform that allows designers such as Christopher Kane, Hussein Chalayan and Iris Van Herpen to push crystals towards new frontiers. It all started when Nadja’s father, Helmut Swarovski, sat next to Isabella Blow at a lunch. “She turned to him and went ‘and what do you do?’” Nadja says, adopting Blow’s accent. “He pulled out a handful of crystals and she said ‘Oh but those are Swarovski crystals!’ This was at a time when people said ‘Strass paste diamante’ and he was so surprised she knew that. She was a total fashion historian.” Cue that seminal SS99 collection and its shimmering crystal mesh dresses. Alexander McQueen, she says, was “lovely, shy, humble”, and Blow was “amazing – we always had a ball. We usually had about five laugh attacks in every meeting. It was very challenging to look at her and not laugh because she always put her lipstick on her teeth. She really introduced me to all these people and then they just became part of a big family.”


The 1883 Electrical Exhibition in Vienna with inventions by Edison and Siemens was a seminal moment for Daniel Swarovski, the company’s founder, inspiring him to create his first cutting machine in 1891 before opening the doors to his business in 1895. Aside from the technical elements, it makes total sense: crystals come to life by illumination.


Opened in the 90s and re-opened this week, the Chambers of Wonder at the Kristallweltes is an immersive, sensory experience, paying homage to crystals through plays on their philosophical, metaphysical and architectural aspects. Case in point: Artist Lee Bul’s Into Lattice Sun, a utopian landscape taking guests across a shimmering, slightly disorienting bridge in a commentary on space and our place within it. Two other key installations are The Crystal Dome – modelled after Sir Richard Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, giving visitors the illusion of standing inside a giant faceted crystal soundtracked by Brian Eno – and Tord Boontje and Alexander McQueen’s icy Narnia-like tree Silent Light.


“Because we’re a family business we try so hard to be environmentally friendly. This is our environment and our home so we have amazing filter systems on the chimneys and on the water,” Nadja Swarovski explained. “The people who work here – the cutters – they call this organisation their family business. They have so much invested pride and passion. Not one crystal leaves the factory with a scratch on it or a bubble in it. As you can tell, this is a farming region and it’s usually the oldest son of the farmer who inherits the farm and then son number two, three and four usually become cutters at Swarovski. You could not even wish for anything more than for people to refer to your company as their family company.”