classic crystal awards

What's the Difference Between Crystal Awards and Glass Awards?

Crystal awards are made from optical crystal, a hand-forged substrate prized for its luminescence, refractive vibrancy and luxe-looking clarity matched by few other award materials.

Acrylic and glass awards create clear, semi-transparent and customizable facades for cost-effective yet lower-quality award materials. Upon closer inspection — and actual touch — their differences couldn't be more pronounced compared to optical crystal.

It's not so crystal clear after all, is it?

What are some of those key differences between crystal, glass and acrylic for award plaques? Primary characteristics include:

  • Appearance
  • Material weight
  • Customization/personalization
  • Durability
  • Price
  • Care and maintenance
  • And more

Each of these differences will be explored below, in this in-depth guide explaining the top materials comprising today's award and recognition plaques. At DIY Awards, we field questions all the time from clients looking to select the best material for their tokens of thanks, ones physically representative of the weight and impact its recipient had. Let's "clear up" these differences once and for all. 

What Makes Crystal Better Than Glass?

Both glass and crystal make an intuitive choice as the base material for plaques and awards. Yet the hard, shiny material we know as glass is actually the end result of thermally treating sand till it transforms into a molten liquid. That liquid is then further treated, poured, shaped and beveled into its final design in a process that can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks.

Many style and science-informed reasons exist as to why crystal is considered the premium material choice over glass for creating custom recognition and appreciation awards for friends, colleagues, mentors, managers and so many others whose accolades deserve the limelight.

  • It's pristine: Crystal provides objectively superior visual clarity, brightness and vibrancy, all based on the principles of light refraction. When light rays pass through a crystal's highly geometric molecular structure, the rays are interrupted and then diffused. The result is a rainbow-like effect when you hold the crystal award plaque up to a light source, and a completely transparent, flawless substrate when on regular display.
  • It's denser: Crystal's structure is denser than both starfire and art glass, as well as all traditional forms of plastic-based acrylic. Its density is one of the principal reasons a crystal figurine will weight more than glass and acrylic figures of the same shape and size.
  • It's durable: While both strong materials that withstand comparative amounts of wear and tear, acrylic and glass surfaces are softer than crystal. Therefore, glass and acrylic are more likely to experience surface scratches that require buffing and polishing to remove.
  • It's more malleable: Even though it holds a denser molecular structure, crystal is heated for longer at lower temperatures, allowing for finer etchings, edges and overall detail work. Glass and acrylic can handle substantial design customizations as well, but not with the same level of fine-comb precision and finesse as crystal.
  • It's high impact: The clarity, opulence and weight of crystal combine to create a high-impact, ultra-luxe award for anyone you're looking to honor. Glass and acrylic are visually attractive materials, but they simply cannot hold up to the aesthetic precision and beauty created by pure optical crystal.

How to Tell Crystal From Glass

Wish to make a side-by-side comparison yourself? There are a number of simple tests you can deploy to determine if a trophy or award plaque has been fashioned from crystal or glass — tests that go beyond giving each award a good, long look.

1. The Sound Test

Take a spoon and gently tap your award plaque, trophy or award a few times. Listen for the resulting sound:

  • When struck, glass will make a shorter, sharper and tinnier clanking noise.
  • Crystal, however, will create an ongoing, melodious ring that fades slowly.

Generally speaking, the longer and clearer that tone, the higher the quality of the crystal.

2. Inspect the Lips and Edges

The low-and-slow method of creating crystal allows the award's lips, or edges, to sculpt into finer points. If an award has particularly thin edges or rims, it is likely made from lead or optical crystal rather than glass. Likewise, if award embellishments are thicker, that is a good indication it is glass-based, not crystal.

In addition, run your hand over an awards' corners or any decorative facets it may possess. If these edges feel sharper to the touch yet also somewhat brittle, you're likely touching glass. Crystal will have softer, more subdued and rounded facet edges that feel streamlined and smooth.

3. Hold It Up to Light

Another visual trick? Hold a plaque or award up to the nearest light source. If you spot a subtle or clear rainbow effect produced as the light passes through, your award is more than likely fashioned from crystal. Similarly, if the surface of the material starts to sparkle, your award is also likely crystal.

Light can be used in other ways to verify crystal versus glass material base. For example, crystal is more translucent than glass. Consider holding a plaque up to text. Glass will tend to distort or obscure the text behind it. If you can read the text clearly through the award, though, you likely have a pure crystal or crystal-forward substrate blend.

4. Inspect Colorations

Glass-based materials will nearly always contain slight pigments or hues that are a byproduct of their treatment process and cannot be removed. However, these can be hard to spot to the naked eye and may require additional light tests to make a final determinant.

5. Weigh It

weight of crystal is heavier than glass

Crystal will be heavier than glass. You should be able to ascertain this weight difference immediately upon picking up a plaque or award. Glass will feel lighter, while crystal will feel denser and more compact.

The Differences Between Crystal Awards and Glass Awards

Crystal and glass are cousins in the award substrate family tree — similar enough to the passing eye, but with enough differences and singularities that, upon closer inspection, set them apart.

1. Composition

Both optical crystal and glass rely on silicone oxide — i.e., sand — to create the base mixture for their materials.

  • Glass formation: Glass is formed primarily from sand particles heated at extremely high temperatures. Amidst this sand-firing process, the mixture changes into a moldable form which creates its unique and customizable final award shape.
  • Crystal formation: In comparison, traditional crystal requires its sand to be fused with lead. Authenticated lead-infused crystals are required to contain a minimum 24% lead concentration and a maximum 30% lead concentration. Many crystal award designers and producers, however, opt to use optical crystal — a lead-free alternative that maintains all of lead crystal's distinguishing properties without sacrificing any of the visual purities and high-sparkle effects so synonymous with traditional crystal. 

Glass' blowing process results in trapped air pockets, some microscopic and some visible. Depending on the treatment, these bubbles, or chill marks, may be desirable, lending a fingerprint-like uniqueness to the look of the final award. Others orders may require uniform, high-quality blown glass awards that do not contain air bubbles visible to the naked eye.

Note: The lead used in crystal recognition awards and plaques is non-toxic and completely safe to touch. Concern over crystal glassware has led to some confusion on lead's applications in other crystal structures. Yet no leaching occurs when in contact with crystal recognition awards and should not be a short or long-term concern for you or your award's recipient.

2. Aesthetics

While both glass and crystal conjure immediate images of clear, colorless and transparent surfaces, the two actually contain distinct visual differences.

  • Clarity: Crystal is among one of the most vibrant and brilliant natural substances known to humankind. While blown glass indeed carries a natural sheen, its actual light refraction is not on par with pure optical crystal, resulting in less "clear" light ray distribution and a slightly duller ultimate shine.
  • Vibrancy: Light passes through easier and distributes farther through crystal. In contrast, glass' air bubble striations disrupt a light-rays transfusion, diminishing its vibrancy.
  • Color: Blown glass will contain trace hues, often imperceptible to the naked eye but ultimately altering its coloration and purity. There is no way to remove glass' color traces. Crystal, however, is a completely clear organic substrate containing no naturally occurring hues, pigments or discolorations. Crystal awards will have color only when color is added per design specs. 

2. Weight

Crystal awards will be heavier than glass awards. This is due in large part to crystal's molecular composition, which is denser than glass and forms a more compact substrate material.

This density is also part of the reason crystal is difficult to scratch or dent. Crystal surfaces will remain smooth and flawless far longer than its material counterparts like glass — and especially longer than awards made from acrylic.

3. Customizations

Both glass and crystal use a thermal-heat process to mold and shape awards. This process allows for a range of shape and image customizations to match your vision for your tokens of appreciation and thanks.

thermal heat process for crystal and glass

Crystal and glass' abilities to handle intricate shapes, details and finishes are not identical.

  • Thickness/award dimensions: Crystal is the more workable of the two materials. It's easier to sculpt and shape during the heating process. As a result, crystal can create thinner award edges and finer award embellishments that would otherwise crack if melded using glass.
  • Material fusion: Combining crystal with other materials — including glass and acrylic — is a slightly longer and more labor-intensive thermal process. Glass' composition makes it more compatible to fuse with other substrates like metal and plastic, but not the exclusive material able to do so. High-quality professionals will work both glass and crystal into multi-material final awards. 

4. Price

Crystal is a premium product with unmatched luminescence, light refraction and durability. This combination of form and long-term function prices it higher than glass and acrylic awards but will be more impactful, last longer and require less maintenance than both these materials.

How Are Acrylic Awards Different?

Acrylic is a synthetic, plastic substance popular across a wide range of applications.

When it comes to custom recognition and appreciation awards, acrylic is seen as a cost-effective alternative to optical crystal or colored glass.

Consider the following design features and elements of acrylic awards to determine if this type of material fits your vision for recognizing those important to you.

1. Aesthetics

There are dramatic differences in appearance between an acrylic award and a glass award.

  • Translucence: Both glass and acrylic are clear materials. Light will pass freely between awards made from each, lending an elegant and bright finished look. However, crystal is a solid, natural material. Its unique, highly geometric molecular structureproduces a notable shimmering effect as light passes through. Acrylic's plastic-based makeup does not produce the same visible shimmering and will appear slightly more opaque.
  • Luminosity: Crystal awards will carry a naturally brighter and crisper glow compared to acrylic. While both are clear substances, light passing through crystal will be clearer and more radiant.

2. Weight

Acrylic is a relatively lightweight award substrate — one of the lightest you can select when creating and awarding custom gifts. The impact of an award's weight is an important — and often overlooked — factor in designing your personalized plaques and trophies. Heavier awards may convey a more serious or weighty recognition gesture, whereas lighter awards could interpret as a less luxe thank you.

3. Detailing

As a type of plastic, acrylic awards are innately customizable. Their synthetic composition can withstand custom text and images cut into their surfaces to create their award template:

  • Moldability: Acrylic awards are typically cast or mold-plastered in high-heat production environments. They are easy to shape and can be modeled according to specific, custom designs. Crystal and glass awards, on the other hand, require precision cutting and shaping from a solid material base. Awards fashioned from crystal and glass must always begin in these unshaped forms and are subsequently chiseled, carved and cut into its final form.
  • Texture: Crystal and acrylic are smooth to the touch. Acrylic awards may require periodic buffing to maintain their level facade, given acrylic's softer surface composition.
  • Color: Acrylic awards can be infused with custom colors during their molding process, matching a wide range of desired palettes.

4. Functionality

Acrylic-based awards are generally sought after for their cost-effectiveness and ease of order customizations. Acrylic is also a high-impact resistant substrate, meaning it's difficult to crack, break or shatter.

However, acrylic's surface and interior composition are softer than crystal. Known as its brittle failure rate, it scratches easily and may require continued buffing or polishing to maintain its smooth facade. Acrylic may not make an ideal choice when awards require shipment over long-distance transportation or will store in high-temperature, high-humidity or otherwise uncontrolled environments where surface damage will likely occur.

Explore Crystal Accolades, Awards and Plaques Fitting Any Budget

There's nothing quite like others' recognizing your personal achievements and hard work — and nothing like giving the best to those who perform their best.

DIY Awards offers one of the most extensive lines of customizable crystal gift plaques in the awards industry. Looking for a way to show how much impact someone has made in your workplace, organization, committee, social group — or just because? Reach out to DIY Awards to hear wording ideas and start creating truly personalized crystal gift products today.

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