A chandelier is a light suspended from the ceiling, with multiple light bulbs or candles. This multitude of lights is what distinguishes it from a standard pendant or ceiling light. It may also be known as a candelabra although this usually refers to a free-standing, multi-armed candle holder. Chandeliers have a history going back over 1000 years, with examples from all corners of the world.
History of the Chandelier
The earliest chandeliers were simple wooden crosses with candles secured by a spike. They were hung from the ceiling and moved up and down using a pulley. This made them safer as the naked flame was out of reach. It also spread the light further and the pulley made it easy to light and put out the candles.
Another form of early chandelier was the simple iron corona. Again, candles were secured on spikes around the edge of a metal hoop, or a series of concentric hoops. These would have been suspended from the ceiling in much the same way as their wooden counterparts.
The Development of Chandelier Styles
Chandeliers gradually became more elaborate and by the 15th century, these simple versions were all but superseded by the development of the Dutch-style or Flemish Chandelier. These were made of brass, with a central sphere supporting upward facing arms, each ending with a candle holder and drip plate. The earliest known image of this type of chandelier was painted by Dutch Old Master Jan van Eyck in 1434. The style spread across Europe, becoming particularly popular in France and England and paving the way for yet more elaborate designs and expensive materials.
French Rock Crystal Chandeliers
Whilst other countries started experimenting with glass, high quality glass was not highly prized or produced in France until the late 18th century so French chandeliers remained part of their metalworking tradition and, instead of glass, they used a transparent form of quartz called rock crystal. Popularised by Louis XIV, the sheer lavishness of these chandeliers made them highly desirable throughout the royal houses of Europe. The Palace of Versailles is festooned with fabulous examples of highly decorative, baroque style rock crystal chandeliers, and Charles II of England boasted of his Louis Quatorze rock crystal chandelier.
French Neoclassical Chandeliers
Following the French Revolution, there was a backlash against the ostentation and decadence of the baroque period, leading to a dramatic move towards a much simpler style of chandelier. Drawing on influences from ancient Greece and Rome, chandeliers of this period incorporated clean lines, classical proportions and a host of mythical creatures. Napoleon’s symbolic bee (signifying hard work, order and the power of the Napoleonic empire) took the place of the royal fleur de lys.
The fashion for neoclassical design spread throughout Europe. In England, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Adam embraced its classic lines and simplicity. The long and slender Adam style chandelier, with its Greek urn shape and tiers of arms with crystal spikes, became particularly influential and went on to inspire later, crystal chandeliers.
English Glass Chandeliers
England saw one of the greatest innovations in glassmaking when, in 1676, George Ravenscroft created and patented lead crystal glass. Also known as flint glass, lead crystal was easier to cut and had greater clarity than earlier glass, producing better refractive surfaces and prisms, which created a glistening, rainbow effect. As a result, England began producing the highest quality glass chandeliers available anywhere at that time. Many factory-style glasshouses were set up, leading to high-quality apprenticeships and superbly high standards of workmanship. Instead of the metal-framed chandeliers decorated with rock crystals, England developed all-glass chandeliers, which quickly became popular throughout the rest of Europe. The size and intricacy of such chandeliers increased considerably throughout the Georgian period and Carlton House, the London residence of the Prince of Wales, boasted a 56-candle 15-foot-tall lead crystal chandelier.
Irish Crystal and English Invention
If you have ever wondered why Ireland has such significance as a producer of fine lead crystal, the answer is simple. The unfortunate Glass Excise Act of 1765 levied a tax on all English glasshouses, encouraging many glassmakers to relocate to Ireland. As a result, Ireland became a major centre for glass production and maintains its reputation to this day.
Another important evolution in English chandelier design is also directly attributable to the glass tax. In an attempt to cut costs by using less glass, English manufacturers developed what is perhaps the most impressive and popular style ever to be created; the “Tent and Bag” or English Regency chandelier. Crystal drops made from pieces of broken glass were strung together in chains and hung from the top of the chandelier to form a tent shape. More chains were suspended from the bottom of the frame and hooked up to the centre to make a bag shape underneath. This style had no arms. Instead, candles were fixed into ormolu holders attached to the frame. Emerging in England in around 1790, this style quickly spread across Europe, inspiring thousands of variations in the years that followed.
The Industrial Revolution
The increased mechanisation and technological advances associated with the Industrial Revolution significantly reduced manufacturing costs, and a growing middle class could finally afford more luxury goods – including chandeliers. However, the greatest advances in chandelier design came with the advent of Edison’s electric light bulb. Solid arms were replaced with hollow versions to allow for electrical wiring and, as there were no candles, arms could be twisted in any direction so that light could be directed down into the room or up into corners.
It is important to note that all the great European designs mentioned above have remained remarkably popular. After a very brief downturn in the late 20th century, traditional chandelier designs are thriving, with a strong revival of interest among designers. And modern technology is sparking renewed interest and a host of quirky, innovative designs. LED bulbs and fibre optics give a previously unimagined level of flexibility in design, and the 21st century has seen fantastic chandeliers made of glass bottles, wine glasses and even gummi bears (yes, really). The weight of a chandelier can be significantly reduced, allowing for some vast and magnificent installations.
No feature on chandeliers would be complete without mention of Daniel Swarovski. His invention in 1892 of a machine that could cut crystals with perfect precision was the foundation of his company’s spectacular success. The name Swarovski is still synonymous with perfection and Swarovski crystals are used around the world in the finest jewellery, furniture and luxury lighting. Many modern manufacturers also source fine crystals from Turkey, Czech Republic and Italy.
Join our mailing list for special offers, updates on interior design trends, and the latest luxury lifestyle news.