How Swarovski Became the Rare Brand Whose Name Is Synonymous With Its Product

Its cut crystals have bedazzled fashion and showbiz for years

Swarovski's jewelry, watches and gifts are sold at 2,800 retail locations worldwide. Courtesy of Swarovski

On the night of May 19, 1962, Peter Lawford, hosting a Democratic Party fundraiser for JFK at New York’s Madison Square Garden, ceded the podium for one of the most famous performances of the 20th century. Having snuck away from the set of her latest film, Marilyn Monroe strode into the spotlight and launched into a breathy, suggestive rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”

The singing may have been average, but Monroe wasn’t. When she slipped out of her fur coat, she stood wearing a flesh-colored, skintight Jean Louis dress—it had literally been sewn onto her—and sparkled in the spotlight: The dress had been stitched with 2,500 Swarovski crystals.

In 1892, when Daniel Swarovski patented a machine that cut lead crystal into brilliant stones (above), the worlds of fashion and show business came running—and they still are. Past and present appearances of Swarovski stones include Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers in the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz, Marilyn Monroe in her crystal-studded gown after singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK in 1962 and Michael Jackson performing with his famous white glove covered in Swarovski Lochrosen crystals.
Jackson: Getty Images; Oz: Alamy Stock Photo; Swarovski: Courtesy of Swarovski

It’s rare that a brand name is so synonymous with its product, but Swarovski happens to be one of those cases. There’s a catch, though: while everyone knows the Austrian family firm makes sparkly crystals, they probably don’t know just how ubiquitous those little gems have become. Swarovski stones have shown up everywhere from the jeweled curtain at the Oscars to stage costumes for Elvis, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Through its many divisions, Swarovski sinks its crystals into watches, hangs them from chandeliers and assembles them into home décor items and gifts. But nowhere are the stones more visible than in the fashion realm, whether as part of the company’s own jewelry line or on clothing created by some 150 high-end designers.

The Glass: For decades, crystal makers added lead to achieve clarity in the glass. But Swarovski recently patented “Advanced Crystal,” which has no lead in the formula. The Cut: Crystals are available in 73 colors, but the hue varies further with the addition of various coatings. Even so, the most popular color is none: clear, natural crystal. The Color: Swarovski’s plant in Wattens, Austria, holds its top-secret cutting machines that facet the crystals for maximum light refraction—er, sparkle.
Courtesy of Swarovski

Born in Bohemia in 1862, Daniel Swarovski was the son of a glass cutter and an inveterate tinkerer who invented an electric cutting machine at age 30. Bohemia was famous for its leaded-glass crystals, which had always been cut by hand, and Swarovski’s machine allowed precision cuts that rendered crystals that sparkled so brilliantly, they were confused with actual diamonds. That luster gave Swarovski a selling proposition that, according to Robert Buchbauer, CEO of the company’s consumer goods business and a great-great-grandson of its founder, remains to this day: “The core is still very close to our founder’s thought,” he said, “to provide a diamond for every woman.”

Swarovski wasn’t part of the retail world until the mid-1970s, when company designer Max Schreck was playing with chandelier crystals and assembled them into a tiny mouse. The figurine became a best-seller at the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics and led to an entire animal collection.

Meaning: an affordable diamond—so close to the real thing that it might as well be. Thanks to the stones’ incomparable dazzle and reasonable price, Swarovski crystals glinted their way onto the silver screen (Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers and Holly Golightly’s tiara in Breakfast at Tiffany’s were both Swarovski encrusted) and eventually into the lives of consumers. Swarovski’s watches, jewelry and gifts fill its 2,800 retail locations worldwide. Meanwhile, partner brands have stuck the crystals on everything from sneakers to dog dishes to Mercedes-Benzes.

Indeed, it’s the range of product collaborations that, Buchbauer said, has “kept us in the game.” But it’s also something else: the undeniable magic of bling. “Once [a] product is enhanced with stones,” he says, “it becomes so incandescent that people want to keep it for a long time—it adds value to almost any kind of product you can imagine.”

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.