“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” This sentence shines out in neon letters on the wall at the Swarovski Manufaktur. This is where the latest technology and amazing designs constantly challenge the status quo. We are visiting their traditional site in the Austrian Tyrol. But as the bright neon statement proclaims, Swarovski does not just rest on tradition.
The community of Wattens with its 8,000 inhabitants is home to a small miracle being worked behind inconspicuous facades as each crystal is produced. The colors, shapes and facets created here are the result of the tried-and-true manufacturing techniques shaped by founder Daniel Swarovski back at the end of the 19th century, as well as innovative high-tech methods that bring the seemingly impossible to life. This is also the case with the BMW Iconic Glow crystal headlights, which first saw the light of day with the launch of the new BMW i7.
Each Swarovski crystal starts its creation process in the glassworks, a harsh and hot environment, before it becomes more and more defined. It moves to the Crystal Factory of the Future to be cut and coated in the hands of a robot. But no crystal leaves the premises without being checked for quality – by an expert’s eye and under a precision magnifier, of course. By combining their respective expertise and transferring this elaborate process to vehicle headlights, Swarovski and BMW are setting new standards on the road in the luxury segment.
Tom Binder, Head of Exterior Light Design at BMW, speaks of a step that no one has taken before: “Up to now, you have only seen homogeneous light strips on the road – the crystal headlights are the complete opposite of that. The dazzling, vibrant light image is a world apart from the familiar accurate light graphic. The precision is in the glass material, though, which can be machined much more finely and precisely than plastic.”
This unique project presented new challenges to BMW engineers and Swarovski product developers alike. Swarovski creations are traditionally in jewelry and fashion design. Over the decades, the company has also designed unique art installations and costumes for musicians and movie stars. Moving into the automotive sector marked a major leap in the company’s expertise though. Commenting on the new development of the crystal headlights, Peter Widmann, Senior Vice President and Managing Director Swarovski Mobility, said: “This collaboration with BMW, then, was more about mastery of crystal cutting and an alignment of passion between two world-renowned brands.”
But how come this project was such a challenge and what makes automotive lights so special anyway?
First of all, it’s about the size of the crystals. It was important to Binder and his team that they “do not look like jewelry, but like a grown crystal.” After that, the challenge was to find a way to keep the large crystals stable in the setting and ensure that they would still be stable in 15 years’ time. Binder explains: “We didn’t want to frame the crystals with jewelry claws for aesthetic reasons. That’s why we developed a floating device on which they are clamped over inlets.”
Let’s take a look behind the crystals to better understand how the headlights work. The new face of the BMW i7 is defined partly by the luminous kidney contour, but above all by the headlights being divided into two, one above the other. The crystals, two pairs each, are located in the upper spotlight along their entire length. Individually controlled LEDs are behind this, creating an irregular, lively glow. They form the daytime running light and the indicator light. The high beam and low beam discreetly nestle in the lower area. During the day, they almost look like air intakes and clearly offset the crystals in the upper headlight.
It’s hard to describe the true radiance of the spotlights verbally because the precision-cut nature of the crystals brings enchanting plays of light. In the automotive context, this opens up new dimensions that are a world apart from the classic headlight. It’s almost like holding a crystal in the sunlight or looking into a brightly twinkling star-filled sky.
The crystal headlights also create a new facet of luxury in the automotive sector. Aside from their elaborate workmanship, their extraordinary properties are an essential element of the new “Great Entrance Moment”: A light show begins as the driver approaches their car, from the kidney grille to the crystal headlights right up to a side carpet of light in the form of overlapping crystals.
"Light is becoming increasingly important to showcase a vehicle,” explains Binder. “It’s already replacing chrome elements more and more and enabling a new form of customization and presence.”
Exploring the changing concept of luxury is also a cornerstone of Swarovski. The Tyroleans share a common philosophy with BMW here. Widmann describes this as follows: “Swarovski has been igniting dreams since 1895 as a mainstay of the fashion, design, art, and film worlds. With a rich heritage of craftsmanship and innovation, and a global cultural awareness, this new exploration of what luxury is, and can be, is a natural next step.”
BMW sees it as shaping a future-proof luxury that marks a paradigm shift by prioritizing sustainability (➜ Read more: Young leaders: Acting today, changing tomorrow). These values also feature heavily on Swarovski’s agenda too, as Widmann confirms: “All our crystals, not just the ones produced for BMW, are what we refer to as Advanced Crystals – they’re made in Austria, are lead-free, and are produced using sustainable practices. We strive to offer the most responsible and transparent crystals in the market; conscious luxury is a part of our DNA.”
Constantly looking ahead, the new crystal headlights are already illuminating the way to an exciting future in which light will play an increasingly important role – for showcasing, for individualization and for personal driving pleasure.
Author: Jelena Pecic; Photos: Roderick Aichinger; Scetches: Chunyue Zhai; Art Direction: Lucas Lemuth, Verena Aichinger; Video: Christoph Deja, Jade & Lee Trott, Noelani Dreksler