MILTON — While demand for Blenko glass continues to be strong, the 129-year-old Milton glassmaking company is facing some economic challenges.
“We have seen significant increases in almost every single chemical used in our glass formulations,” said Dean Six, vice president of Blenko Glass. “Everything we use in the glassmaking process has gone up. Everything from gloves and janitorial supplies to raw metal for our blowpipes has increased in price.”
The pandemic has also added to financial concerns over the past two years.
“We shared the supply issues we had with corrugated boxes in 2020 and spray foam in 2021,” he said. “Now we are dealing with massive spikes in our natural gas pricing due to the situation in Europe, and we anticipate the effects of U.S. inflation will continue to affect our vendor pricing until 2024. We strive to be transparent and present the reality of our business as is.”
Six said one of the things Blenko uses is cobalt to make cobalt-colored glass.
“Historically, cobalt has not been a terribly expensive material to buy, but it’s an element in lithium batteries as I understand it and the people making lithium batteries are making a whole lot more money than we are making glass,” Six said. “So the market for cobalt is constantly going up. There is another higher price use for it in cars and cell phones, so the price of cobalt has gone up immensely.”
Six said the main ingredient used in Blenko’s artisan glassmaking process is sand.
“We use the purest silica sand we can afford,” he said. “Silica is used in semi-conductors and so we are competing in a reasonably limited market that has multiple uses. Some of these other uses are much more profitable and they can bear the cost of it doubling.”
Six says Blenko had to recently make the difficult decision to increase its prices.
“I don’t like prices increases,” he said. “We have historically been increasing prices incrementally on certain products to avoid shock to our customers, but this new increase is across all items and will be the final price increase for some time.”
The prices increases vary depending on the product, but one example is the iconic 384 Water Bottle. The retail price was $64, but with the price increase it now sells for $78.
“We have been making that piece since 1938 and it’s what we make the most of,” Six said. “We thought of doing a smaller price increase, but if inflation continues and our prices to produce our products continues to increase then we didn’t want to have to turn around and increase prices again in a few months.”
To complicate things further, the immense amount of support the company has received for its glass has made it almost impossible for Blenko to keep stock on the shelves, according to Six.
“We are rapidly hiring and training new glassworkers but those skillsets take time to develop,” he said. “A good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.”
So to make sure they can serve retail customers and reduce fulfillment and shipping times as Christmas approaches, Blenko has stopped accepting wholesale orders until 2023.
Six called Blenko’s current situation a simple case of supply and demand.
“We are selling more, but we are dealing with a shortage of workers, supply chain issues and limited capacity,” he said. “We are struggling to keep up with demand.”
Six says Blenko has hired an experienced trainer to work with its new hires.
“Their skillset improves each week,” he said. “We very much want to get back to complex and large pieces, but this takes time.”
One of those new workers is Lisa Stevens, 41, of West Hamlin, West Virginia. She is the first woman to ever work in Blenko’s hot shop.
“I am working in the stick up and heating division right now,” she said. “I get to work with my hands and be a part of making something beautiful. I would like to be a glass finisher one day.”
Six says to get more skilled workers, the company is working with the U.S. Department of Labor and West Virginia economic development officials to start a federally approved and regulated apprenticeship program for glassworkers.
“We have developed a 10,000-hour training program which our students can progress through in order to become a federally recognized glassworker,” Six said. “Those who complete this program will also receive college credit.”
Six said most customers have been positive about the changes.
“People are so loyal to Blenko and have told me they love that everything is handmade and they understand the situation we are in,” he said.
James Burch, of Hurricane, West Virginia, was at Blenko last week to buy one of the iconic water bottles and said he understands the need to increase prices.
“Everything I buy now has gone up in price over the last few years, so it’s to be expected that Blenko would have to increase its prices too,” he said. “I love the quality of their handmade glass products and even with the price increase everything they have is still a great value to me.”
“We believe these price increases to be fair,” Six said. “We want to be around for another 100 years, thus we must adapt and react quickly to these changing market conditions. We want our customers to know they can continue to rely on us. We feel strongly that our responsibility is to be a stable manufacturer and supplier of contemporary American-made glassware.”
Six said the prices have been updated on Blenko’s website at blenko.com.