What do you get when you combine a 4,000-year-old craft with optimism, comfort, persistence, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a big heart? Glassybaby.
I could simply describe a glassybaby as a hand-blown vessel for a votive candle. But there is nothing simple about Glassybaby, the company, its history, its power of kindness, and the woman behind it.
In 1995, Lee Rhodes, a Seattle mother of three, was diagnosed with cancer for the third time. As a way to help her then-husband relieve stress (the first indication of her kindness), she bought him glass-blowing lessons. When he brought home his first roughly hewn baby cup, Lee plopped in a tea light and noticed something special. The flame’s flicker and the color’s changing dimension imparted a sense of soothing comfort as if whispering, “Be well.” Her friends felt the same magic and Lee began to give her husband’s practice cups as gifts. The momentum grew and after hiring her first glass blowers, she was soon selling them out of her garage. In 2001, Glassybaby was officially launched.
During Lee’s cancer treatments, she had met other patients and remembered those who had struggled to afford certain day-to-day costs. Costs often overlooked such as childcare during chemotherapy sessions or transportation to and from doctors’ appointments. So, Lee donated a portion of her garage sales to charities that helped such patients.
In 2003, the first studio, or “hot shop”, where glassybabies are made, opened in Seattle and a second opened this month in Berkeley. There are several Glassybaby retail stores including two in San Francisco. Since 2003, 10 percent of all gross sales have been donated to various charities. To date, this donation has topped $3.5 million.
Customers who order online will find it a delightful experience. The website is cheerfully colorful, with dozens of glassybaby hues, each named with a backstory and a charity assigned. For instance, sales of a purple glassybaby called “Sweet Pea” go to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and sales of a honey brown glassybaby, called “Little Bear” go to the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation.
There is even a soft amber called “Comfort” that helps Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) knowing the unconditional comfort animals bring to those during their most lonely moments. While there is a “Happy Birthday” glassybaby, I’ll be sending birthday wishes in the form of the “Best Friends Forever” glassybaby to someone who has been my BFF since the first grade.
There is also a series of glassybabies called “drinkers” with names like “Last Call” and “Happy Hour.” Sales from drinkers are dedicated to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Given Glassybaby’s numerous colors and messages, there isn’t a positive sentiment that you won’t find. But if the selection is overwhelming, there are preselected sets from which to choose. There’s even a glassybaby club membership where Lee handpicks and sends customers her surprise color of the month.
Over the years, Lee’s endeavors have led to a guest appearance on the Martha Stewart Show and in 2011, Entrepreneur Magazine named her Entrepreneur of the Year.
The measure of my enthusiasm for glassybaby as a company can only be met by my enthusiasm for glassybaby as a product. I spotted its exquisite display at the Ferry Building this summer. Even before hearing Lee Rhodes’s story, it was clear that glassybaby was unique. Each vessel was individually crafted and no two were the exact same color, size or shape.
In Glassybaby’s Seattle studio today, there are 80 glass blowers taking sand to hand in this ancient craft. It takes four people, 2,000 degrees and a multi-layered glassblowing process to create one glassybaby. Production begins early in the morning when lead-free, European color rods, with some recipes dating back hundreds of years, are loaded into ovens for preheating. A process called “gathering” follows as glass blowers collect hot glass onto blowpipes. The color comes from a three- layered application of clear and colored glass – these layers make glassybabies weigh a sturdy one pound.
And, because the rod elements come from the earth, the colors of glassybabies change ever so slightly as they warm from the heated candles.
After the last layer is gathered, the mold blower inflates the glass into a cork-lined graphite mold, which creates the iconic glassybaby shape. Unlike most glass vessels, glassybabies are then trimmed by hand.
Next, the bottom is stamped with the glassybaby logo made from a custom bronze stamp. Finally, the glassybaby is slowly cooled for 16 hours to relieve stress. Each piece is then inspected with 20 different quality control standards.
To my family, friends and party-throwing hosts: You can now expect a glassybaby for every birthday, shower, wedding, religious and non-religious holiday. I promise you will love them and, in the spirit of an interior designer, I also promise to keep tabs on the colors I send so that your collection will grow into beautiful, magical and uniquely personal vignettes.
For more information and a visual treat, visit glassybaby.com. Glassybabies start at $44. Drinkers are $55. Shipping is free in the lower 48 states.