Since 1756, the Riedel family has been a leading force in the manufacture of glassworks in their native Austria. The family-owned business has survived through 11 generations of master craftsmen, in an industry that has seen little change in 4000 years. The company has recently announced that starting this summer, Maximilian Riedel will take over management of the company, after his father, Georg Riedel steps down as CEO.
The Riedel dynasty has seen empires come and go, experienced the advent of capitalism and suffered the ravages of war. By the end of the 17th century, Johann Christoph Riedel started traveling through Europe and trading glass in places as far away as Spain and Portugal. But it was Johan Leopold Riedel (3rd generation), who founded the family’s first glass factory in 1756, a tradition that continues to this day. Leopold made his fortune after the Seven Year War (1756-1763), which increased the demand for windowpanes, needed to rebuild the towns destroyed by the Austrians and the Prussians during the war they fought over Bohemia and Schlesia. This marks the official beginning of the Riedel glass company.
“In the early years, my family produced glass for industry as well as decorative objects for royal families and the church, which can still be purchased at auction today”, says Maximilian Riedel (11th generation), referring to the work of Franz Xavier Riedel (5th generation), who introduced uranium to glass making in the early 18th century. “My ancestors developed the use of uranium in glasswork to obtain very distinct colors, which they named Ana Green and Ana Yellow after Franz’s daughter”. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the railway and easy access to coal, the company moved from traditional ways of making glass in the forests of Bohemia (using wood furnaces) to the town of Polaun, hiring 1,200 workers that produced colored glass beads and blanks (glass not shaped in finished form), which were commissioned and sold by trading companies.
1. Johann Leopold Riedel (3rd generation). / 2. Anton Leopold Riedel (4th generation). / 3. Franz Xavier Riedel (5th generation). / 4. Joseph Riedel The Elder (6th generation). / 5. Joseph Riedel The Younger (7th generation). / 6. Walter Riedel (8th generation). / 7. Claus J. Riedel (9th generation). / 8. Georg Riedel (10th generation).
The first half of the 20th century was marked by a rebalancing of the powers that ruled Europe, and by two devastating world wars. Walter Riedel (8th generation) was forced to change citizenship four times, given the turmoil over the Sudetenland, the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, which included Bohemia, a territory that changed hands several times during the war years. Walter, who had inherited the mechanical genius of his father, became a leading manufacturer of advanced mold techniques for picture tubes, used in the new radar technologies employed for monitoring airspace. The Nazis commanded the industry to move away from luxury glass in favor of strategic war products like radar screens and cat’s eye retro reflectors. This cost Walter 10 years in a Russian camp as a prisoner of war working as a scientist for the Stalin regime. “We are one of those typical family businesses from Europe that lost everything in WWII. We lost all our belongings after the Russians annexed Czechoslovakia and took my great grandfather prisoner, until the Austrian government paid the ransom for his release. It is a miracle he survived”, says Maximilian about the dire circumstances the family faced in the 1940s. After the war, the Riedels were given another opportunity to continue their business.
The 1950s heralded a new era for Riedel glass. Visionary Claus Joseph Riedel, broke with tradition again and changed stemware from traditional colored and cut glass to plain, unadorned, thin blown wine glasses that were immediately recognized by costumers and museums, like New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which still has some pieces of Riedel glass in their permanent collection.
“We are very proud of our achievements in the last century, specially the introduction of grape varietal specific wine glasses. It was the invention of my grandfather, who made glasses that were not only beautiful, but also very functional”. Claus produced his masterpiece Sommelier line in 1973, the first to be based on the character of wine.
Grape varietal stemware makes it possible to fully appreciate all the nuances of aromas and tastes from the best wines in the world. Through this invention, the company is credited for doing more for oenology than any of the most reputed wine dynasties in the world.
The challenge for Maximilian Riedel has been to remain relevant and introduce the brand to the North American market, increasing sales and brand recognition around the world. He has been involved in the business since he was 12 years old, learning the necessary glassblowing technique and business principles needed to run an international company. He would later share his vocational education with his responsibilities in sales and administration of the company from his hometown of Kufstein, Austria. “Everybody wants to be a soccer player or a stock trader when they are children, but my father did a great job of making the family business attractive for my generation. I do not want to be the last of my family in the glass world, so it is up to me to remain active and grow the business for my heirs”, says Maximilian who is still single and has no children.
He has been the principal designer for the company’s classic and whimsical decanters, for which he has received accolades and awards from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco MoMA, Corning Museum of Glass, Maison et Objet Paris, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. “I’m inspired by very organic shapes and natural flow, because that is what glass does. I work with a talented group of people who have worked for my family through generations, the old fashioned way, by trial and error. Sometimes we fail because glass is a very interesting, delicate and difficult material.”
Georg Riedel & Maximilian Riedel.
At the age of 23, Maximilian was faced with the responsibility of developing sales in the US, an opportunity that would forever change his life. Living in tight quarters in Hoboken, NJ, the young entrepreneur set out to discover the American way of business and the lifestyle of urban oenophiles. “I’m very thankful for what I have learned in the last 13 years, the people I’ve worked with, and the mentality that has informed the way I now do business. I can confirm that America is the land of the free, and as a businessman, I can truly appreciate the American experience”. The response stateside has been excellent. “I’ve been able to grow brand awareness through design aspects influenced by American wine culture”, says the CEO.
He plans to expand the brand to new markets in Latin America and Africa. “There is a growing wine culture in Latin America and South Africa. Travel, tourism and the emerging economies there, are requiring more and more support for the enjoyment of wines and traditional spirits, like tequila and pisco, for which we have created specific glasses”, says Riedel. The brand intends to develop specific glasses for non-alcoholic beverages like soft drinks, coffee, tea, and also water.
With subsidiaries in Japan, China, the UK, Australia, Germany, Austria, US and Canada, a global presence in 125 contries, and annual sales of more than $300 million, the young CEO, who currently lives in New York, and is passionate about exercising and boxing, has the tools needed to propel the 260-year old dynasty into new horizons. He is well aware of the responsibility of passing the torch in due time to the next generation of the Riedel family. ■