Story by Eileen Cartter / Photography by Linnea Bullion
GOOGLE and PAPER came together to highlight the SMALL BUSINESSES that are LEADING the BIGGEST TRENDS of the summer based on Google’s trending search data.
When Stephanie Summerson Hall, founder of the viral glassware company Estelle Colored Glass, thinks back on her childhood, she remembers gatherings at her paternal grandmother Estelle’s home on the outskirts of Charleston. Even now, she can remember the table, dotted with amber glass bowls and grass-green glass dishes full of South Carolina classics: Ham perlow, Hoppin’ John with field peas and rice, potato salad, mac and cheese. The vegetables, always in season; the desserts, always homemade.
“She always had her home open not only to our family, but to people who revered the fact that she was a great cook and had a warm home,” Hall recalls, speaking by phone from South Carolina on a recent “three-quarter-sleeve-type” of warm-weather day. “What we called her was Big Mama, and what a Big Mama really is is a person who brings a lot of people together and has a lot of capacity, and she definitely played that role in our community and our expanded family.”
Growing up, Hall accompanied her grandmother to antique stores in and around the city, where they sought out fine tableware, keeping a particular eye out for jewel-like colored glass. And when Hall, now a mom of four, moved back to the area as an adult just over a decade ago, she began “thinking in terms of [creating] forever connections back in my native South Carolina.” But she realized that finding true-blue, handmade colored glass was tricky nowadays; over the years, many manufacturers, American and otherwise, had stopped producing it altogether, and even vintage pieces were hard to come by.
After five years of development, Hall launched her company in October 2019 and named it after her grandmother, growing her product list to span a range of hand-blown wine glasses, champagne flutes, coupes and even cake stands in a flush of colors, each juicy and translucent: Tangerine orange, petal pink, shocking fuchsia, smoky amber, minty green. Estelle glasses follow a tradition of hosting and table setting that Black Southern women have honed for generations, all in the spirit of making anyone who enters your house feel at home. When homegoods sales soared in 2020 and 2021, Estelle Colored Glass took off, and styles began to sell out immediately, leaving in their wake online guides on where to find their most unique models.
In 2022, a collection of nice dishes amassed for one can once again fulfill its purpose of serving many. It’s a cycle that feels strangely true to Hall’s brand story, in a way, because the real-life Estelle always had a semper paratus philosophy to hosting. She kept two china cabinets, “One with more casual pieces and one with more formal, ‘the preacher is coming over to dinner’ pieces.” When cooking a meal, Hall says, “She was not going to have one meat, one starch, one vegetable — she was going to have two options in each category.” And if you already have the tableware fundamentals on hand, like a great set of glasses or a beautiful serving bowl, you’re ready for company.
“It’s almost like you build your wardrobe [so] when you get invited to something, you have something to wear,” Hall says. “You’re not running all over town trying to find something.”
When building her business before the pandemic, Hall reached out to glassmakers across the US only to learn that many of them were down to skeleton crews — many more out of business entirely — and lacked the infrastructure to manufacture hand-blown original designs and colors. She eventually connected with a century-old factory in Poland, a country which has a history of glassmaking, in a moment of hostess’ ingenuity; it was actually through her events company that Hall connected with the manufacturing community in Poland in the first place. (A self-described “serial entrepreneur,” Hall has owned and operated an event rental company for nearly two decades.) She would often directly source from the makers of the original Polish Thonet bentwood “bistro” chairs, and eventually asked her contacts there if they knew of any local glassmakers.
As it also turns out, Hall’s heritage glassware was a perfect fit for a market already keen on nostalgic design. The look of Depression-era glass popular in the 1920s — often in shades of rosy pink and Jadite green, with intricate patterns given shape during hard times by mechanized molds rather than glassblowers — had made a comeback, though Hall wanted to produce one-of-a-kind colors beyond one could even imagine finding at an antique store, inspired by the things she found beautiful.
The lavender shade, one of Hall’s favorites, was modeled after an Elie Saab evening dress, and the end product does indeed feel like a cosmic relative to the one actress Mila Kunis wore to the 2011 Oscars, in wine glass form. On the hunt for the perfect blue, Hall thought back to her event planning days, when she often sourced vintage furniture to use for setups. She loved a particular Persian blue couch so much that she sent over a fabric sample to the glassmakers in Poland, resulting in the cobalt blue hue that is now Estelle’s most purchased color.
But as Hall learned months into launching Estelle, customers didn’t want to choose a single shade for a matching set — a concept she hadn’t even considered. Heeding their request, she began offering assorted sets of six that are now her bestseller. Beyond their kaleidoscopic window appeal, the mixed kits have a practical purpose as a nouveau version of yesteryear’s wine charms, the kind one might imagine curled around tall stems of wine glasses filled with big, buttery, ice-cold pours of a 1998 Chardonnay. (Not that there isn't a time and place for wine charms; you can find some amazing ones online.)
And while Estelle’s dedicated fan base makes for thoughtful customer feedback — Hall will often post a range of in-the-works sample shades on Instagram, where commenters weigh in on their favorites — it also holds some surreal surprises. During a summer of global protests in 2020, Hall heard from Zerina Akers, founder of the website Black Owned Everything and stylist to Beyoncé, who was helping to compile a directory of Black-owned businesses for her client’s website. “It was very interesting to get a call when she said something like, ‘Yeah, I’m with Beyoncé,’” she recalls. “I like, ‘Wait a minute, who?’”
“All of it has been so humbling because you just think you’re doing this body of work, you never know how — I’ve definitely been an entrepreneur long enough. You never know what's going to take off and you never know what's going to flop,” Hall adds. “Something like colored glass, you give it all you got and see how it goes. But I just always felt like if I like it, there’s got to be some other people who like it too, you know?”
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