Forty-two years ago Josef Puehringer, a young man who had learned the traditional art of engraving glassware and crystal in his native Austria, was invited to come to the United States by Carson Pirie Scott & Company. Only two years later he founded his own engraving workshop in Chicago. Today his Wilmette, Illinois engraving and crystal company, The Crystal Cave, is considered one of the most modern and successful companies, employing the latest technology and attracting a large number of contracts and clients.
Puehringer’s close ties to the U.S. began during his childhood in post-war Austria. “My grandfather owned a country Guest House and when the U.S. Allied Forces were in Austria, the Guest House became the headquarters for the Americans in this region. My father was an American soldier, a chef for the officers, when he met my mother. She realized she was pregnant after he left for the U.S. By the time she found him, he was married and had children. My mother made the decision to raise me by herself while continuing to work in the family restaurant. I was born in the American Field Hospital in Seekirchen, near Salzburg.”
Although his grandparents were successful restaurant owners, Puehringer soon exhibited a great interest in the art of engraving glassware and crystal. His hometown of Schneegattern in Upper Austria was well known for its glass manufacturing industry. Its first glass factory had been built in the 1620s. The father of Josef Puehringer’s best childhood friend was an electrician for the old glass factory and he took the boys on tours through the factory. He recalls, “It was fascinating to see all the glass blowers, cutters, glass painters and engravers at work. I decided early in my life that this is something I wanted to do.”
When it was time to learn a trade, Josef Puehringer went to the Glasfachschule Kramsach-Tyrol where he learned the art of glass engraving. In the summers he worked in the old factory in his home town; during the school year he worked in small glass refineries doing copper wheel engraving. After finishing his service in the Austrian military, Puehringer went back to Kramsach to work as a copper wheel engraver and back to school to study portrait engraving.
“At my school, job openings were listed for glass professionals all over the world. I saw that Carson Pirie Scott was looking for someone to do their glass monograms. I applied and after I received my green card I came to Chicago in 1967.” After two years at Carson’s, with hard work and the help of a friend, Josef Puehirnger opened his first workshop in Chicago’s Rogers Park area where he engraved for Swedish importers and some jewelry stores.
One of Josef Puehringer’s neighbors in those early years was a doctor who gave him the advice to “go where the money is.” He found a place in Wilmette he could afford and started in retail. “And that,” he recalls, “catapulted me to where I am now. At the beginning my business was called ‘Glass Engraving and Glass Repairs.’ One day a lady came into my shop and said, ‘Josef, if you want to do business, you have to have an appealing company name.’ So I thought about it and I changed my company’s name to The Crystal Cave. A week later she walked in and gave me the book, ‘The Crystal Cave’ by Mary Stuart. The lady was Charleton Heston’s mother. She used to give me a bottle of Glenfiddich every Christmas, a single malt whiskey which was Charleton Heston’s favorite scotch, and she’d say, ‘This is from Charleton.’ Whenever a film was produced in which he starred, my job was to capture its theme and duplicate it on glass. He loved the special brandy glasses produced by Riedel at that time. I engraved his portrait on such a glass, and he loved that one the most.”
Josef Puehringer had many private commissions. One of them was to engrave the Flight of the Crystal Swallows, an exclusive design for the Franklin Mint. After 800 hand-engraved bowls, Josef Puehringer developed carpul tunnel syndrome in his wrist. His doctor warned him that continuing to work like that could cause permanent paralysis.
Thinking about changing his career, Puehringer learned that Professor Claus Josef Riedel had founded Riedel Crystal of North America. Since crystal was Josef Puehringer’s love, he applied for a job as salesman for Illinois and Wisconsin. He was hired by the president Dieter Spichal and worked for Riedel for eight years while continuing to own The Crystal Cave retail store. He hired and trained people to keep his shop going and growing according to his standards.
Josef Puehringer said he learned a lot on the other side of the business selling wholesale to department and specialty stores. He also was learning more about glass design from him and Benito Marcolin, factory owners in Sweden at that time. To represent Riedel was a great joy for Josef because he always admired the fine blown glassware that Claus Josef Riedel had learned in Venice. Riedel was the first one to blow the thin lead crystal that became a wine-lover’s delight.
As Puehringer’s business began to grow, he had to say goodbye to Riedel and put all his emphasis in his own company. At The Crystal Cave he was engraving samples and exclusive designs for importers for the American market. At times he was asked to produce as many as 2000 pieces for one company. That started him searching for a process to produce art much faster and more affordably. Ten years ago, Puehringer hired assistants to start drawing on the computer designs of skylines, buildings, and churches that could be three-dimensionally sand blasted. It is a technique that he developed to reduce engraving time from 40 hours to less than two hours once the initial drawing is finished.
Mr. Puehringer has a very well-trained staff of which he is very proud. He calls them his “Crystal Cave Family.” His work is featured in the Vatican in Rome and in many European state houses. His latest masterpieces are displayed in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and in the homes of many happy recipients of Crystal Cave gifts across America.
Josef Puehringer and his wife Jenny were married four years ago on their favorite island of Maui in Hawaii. Their hobbies are traveling, biking, gardening, music, literature and their four kittens.