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Simon Pearce: The Man Behind the Glass

Simon Pearce: The Man Behind the Glass
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It’s solid yet graceful, functional yet beautiful. It’s not flashy; it’s built for the long haul. If an inanimate object can be said to project an air of quiet confidence, then Simon Pearce’s glassware does it.

Simon Pearce is a person. Simon Pearce is also a Quechee, Vermont, company with a workforce of nearly 400 that has a reputation for quality handmade glass and pottery sold in hundreds of stores nationwide at a relatively affordable price. This is a big year for Simon Pearce: The business observed its 35th anniversary (its 25th on American soil), and the founder celebrated his 60th birthday in November.

It would be easy to overlook Simon Pearce in a crowded room. He is a casual dresser, compact, and utterly unpretentious, equally at ease in his office, on the factory floor, or greeting customers in one of his company stores. But there’s a remarkable story behind this seemingly unremarkable man.

Simon Pearce was born in 1946 in London. Four years later, his parents moved to the Irish countryside. Simon says it was a radical decision: “In those days it was really rural. People had nothing; it was incredibly poor.” His father, Philip, tried farming before discovering a talent for ceramics; his studio eventually gained a wide reputation for its quality (it’s now operated by Simon’s brother, Stephen). But finances were tight in the early years, and Simon had a terrible time in school. He had dyslexia, which was never diagnosed until many years later. He dropped out at the age of 16 and worked for his father for a year.

And then he moved halfway around the world. Just 17 years old, Simon traveled to New Zealand and spent two years studying pottery with a British emigre named Harry Davis. Simon then returned home and worked in his father’s studio, but his attention was captured by another medium. “I realized I was collecting old glasses,” he says. “They were these old rummers — simple glasses that were used in the pubs and every day. I loved the quality and feel of them, and nobody was making anything like it anymore.”

Simon wanted to revive that tradition, so he set out to learn glassmaking. He traveled around Europe, working at any glass factory that would hire him. In 1971, he set up his own shop in Ireland. He steadily built a business and a reputation, but there were problems. Energy costs were very high — a real issue when glass furnaces run at 2,500 degrees. Also, says Simon, “Ireland was a tough place to run a business. It’s different now — it’s doing great. But in those days, the bureaucracy didn’t understand how to help and promote business. So I said, ‘It’s time to move.’”

How did this world traveler find Quechee, Vermont? Few people know that Simon Pearce is among Laurance Rockefeller’s gifts to the Woodstock area. In 1980, the billionaire grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller learned of Simon’s plans to move to America from mutual friends. While Simon and his wife were visiting the States, Laurance invited them to lunch and put them in touch with a local real estate agent.

Simon wanted a source of waterpower to serve as a hedge against rising energy prices, so when he was shown the old mill building on the bank of the Ottauquechee River, he knew he had found a new home. He bought the building, and it is still the heart of the company today. It houses a company store (one of 10 on the East Coast), a water-powered glass factory and pottery studio, and a fine restaurant overlooking the river.

Simon arrived in the United States with a staff of three, including Charles Shackleton, who was then a glassblower and is now a furniture craftsman in nearby Bridgewater. “It was more like a family than a business,” Charles recalls. “Simon and his wife lived on the top floor of the mill building, and the rest of us lived across the street. We knew it was a struggle at first, but Simon was always positive.”

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