I just figured out how to do this yesterday; I'm still surprised I succeeded so quickly.
I was very taken with a set of crystal stemware at Oldies, the big, waterside antique shop in Newburyport yesterday. They were unidentified — no maker, no pattern, no mention of their age or origins on the price tag. At $60 for a set of six, they weren't expensive, but I like to know what I'm buying. (I know very little about glass.) Plus, we don't need glassware and we have no room to store it.
On the other hand, they were delightfully rounded, well proportioned, felt wonderful in my hand, and were in mint condition. If they were a once-in-a-lifetime antique find, I knew I'd be kicking myself forever if I let them go. I took photos, and decided to mull over the purchase as we walked around town.
Newburyport is lovely. And there are gelato shops. We lost track of the time and the antique shop closed before we had a chance to return for a second look. My only option now was to do some research.
I kept the photos handy as I went on eBay that night. There's no easily searchable, comprehensive database on the web for crystal (or china or silver) patterns so, while eBay is random and may seem futile, there's enough merchandise there that you can often spot what you're looking for — at least for silver, which will usually have at least a maker's mark if not a year. If you can't find a silver pattern after a couple of hours of intelligent searching on eBay, that tells you it's probably rare. But you have to be patient.
I'd never tried to identify a stemware pattern before; glasses don't have marks or, if they do, I can't see the damn things. I searched eBay's "Glass" category for "crystal goblets" and got more than 6,700 results. Yikes. But I'm patient about hunting (less so when dealing with people), so I began quickly scrolling through them. After several hundred, I soon noticed that a few other styles of glasses had a stylized, leafy, ornamental band around the bowl, similar to "my" glasses. When I looked at those listings, I discovered that they were often called "Laurel."
Okay, so that's a laurel band on them-there glasses. That might help.
Next, I went to Replacements.com, which has the world's biggest inventory of glassware, crystal, and china (at outrageous prices), along with an unwieldy search engine that can't help you if you're clueless. (Replacements will try to identify a mystery pattern for you if you email them a photo. But where's the thrill in that?) I searched for "laurel." That turned up photos of several styles of glassware with similar leafy bands, but not the pattern I wanted. Oh, well.
I went back to eBay and kept scrolling through listings. My next discovery was that only a few manufacturers routinely make glasses with hexagonal stems and bases, including Seneca, Fostoria, Villeroy & Boch, and one or two others. I searched quickly in "Glass" for goblets by each of these brands, and found that only Villeroy & Boch makes crystal patterns with the same hexagonal stems and faceted "knobs" of my mystery pattern.
I did a new eBay search for "Villeroy and Boch" in "Glass" without specifying "goblets" and quickly found similar patterns with identical stems and, finally, a centerpiece bowl in "my" pattern. Voilà — it's called Miss Desiree.
I searched for "Villeroy Miss Desiree" on Google and found that it's a current offering. New goblets are available in three sizes for as little as $12 ($20 at Replacements). The set of six in Newburyport seems a bit overpriced for secondhand, contemporary glassware, although I would have bargained for a better price. But there's no urgency now; Miss Desiree is a dime a dozen, so to speak. But if we ever decide we want fancy water goblets to celebrate our withdrawal from soda (ongoing, with relapses), I've got a great pattern picked out.
So, my tips for identifying glassware: look for distinctive elements and pay attention when you find photos of vaguely similar patterns to give you hints about the manufacturer, as well as keywords for further searching. The hexagonal, knobbed stems and bases on these glasses made it simple.
My best tip: don't try to identify plain, boring glassware! If you want a manageable challenge, pick a pattern with some character.
Finally, use Replacements.com as a reference tool but don't buy antique or discontinued items from them unless you are desperate or have too much disposable income. Their prices are often double or triple what you'll pay anywhere else. Check their prices and expect to pay a fraction of them at other dealers.