Sydney Morning Herald FEBRUARY 12, 2011 - by Rob Dunlop


Rob Dunlop is dazzled by Swarovski Crystal Worlds - a mix of theme park, fantasy and bling.

I've never quite understood the world's relationship with Swarovski crystals. Now, after a visit to Swarovski Crystal Worlds in Austria, I'm even more uncertain as to whether it's Eurotrash or uber-cool.

Aboard an Italian cruise ship, I've walked the showcase staircase inlaid with Swarovski crystals, reverberating with the "oohs" and "aahs" of passengers. I've also heard similar sounds of delight from inside a Swarovski shop in a suburban shopping centre in Australia.

I'm not quite sure where the brand fits and I'm bamboozled by the shimmering multimedia spectacular that is Swarovski Crystal Worlds - which is in Wattens - birthplace of the famous family-owned crystal company established in 1895 and where the family still lives.

To celebrate a hundred years of crystal success, the Swarovski family commissioned the Austrian avant-garde multimedia star, Andre Heller, to create a crystal experience like no other. In 1995, the artist, heralded for his vaudeville antics, delivered.

Heller was inspired by the region's beautiful Ambras Castle with its chambers of treasures, along with a local mythological giant, which has become the centrepiece of Crystal Worlds.

Amid classic alpine scenery, a carved-stone giant with eyes of crystal appears. Water spews from its mouth into a pond as it guards a domain of parkland with sculptures. But it is under the giant's green hairy back, deep within its bowels, where the real fun begins inside fourteen subterranean Chambers Of Wonder.

Under the earth, the giant's spinal cord - which doubles as the world's longest crystal wall at eleven metres high and forty-two metres long - weaves through the complex.

At the entrance hall, where the giant's backbone begins, is the world's largest cut crystal, with a diameter of forty centimetres and weighing sixty kilograms. Encased alongside it is Swarovski's smallest cut crystal, with a diameter of 0.8 millimetres. A magnifying glass helps with the inspection.

Original artwork from Andy Warhol's Gems series hangs on the wall while drooping Salvador Dali-inspired work hangs from the ceiling.

The first chamber is where the real confusion begins. British artist Jim Whiting's Mechanical Theatre explores themes of passion and erotic fantasies in the form of stomping, mechanical, naked, half-torso mannequin women in red high-heel shoes; and high-kicking, half-torso mannequin men in pants and black shoes.

As the postmodernist interpretation weighs at your senses, coat-hangers with shirts whiz around the room to music and other noise distractions.

Next up is Crystal Dome, a chamber with about six hundred mirrors reflecting light and sounds designed by Brian Eno. Swarovski Crystal Worlds promises "full-emotion crystal encounters".

Further on, Silent Night is a tree of steel branches bearing thousands of crystals, created by designers Alexander McQueen and Tord Boontje.

Eno gets another look-in with his work 55 Million Crystals - an audiovisual show of music and virtual paintings.

Crystalscope chamber has the world's biggest kaleidoscope, designed in collaboration with holistic medicine guru Peter Mandl. Here you can rest and incite the harmonising effects of crystals.

One of the chambers is an exhibition that traces the evolution of Swarovski. According to photo displays, the world's rich and famous have had a long affair with the brand.

The brilliance continues with neon lights, interactive experiences and a zebra poised in a red shoe. This is challenging enough to make you think there might be something serious to the fun and fantasy. Just don't come expecting glittering roller-coasters, fairy floss or demonstrations of crystal-making.

I suspect the payoff for most visitors to Swarovski Worlds is the razzle-dazzle at the end - the world's biggest Swarovski shop. The full product range is on display and includes jewellery, bags, binoculars, figurines, loose crystals, chandeliers, pens, key rings and, of course, decorations for mobile phones and iPods.

Refreshments in the cafe help to restore the senses and, in case you've already forgotten the alignment of Swarovski with high-end art, original works from artists such as Lichtenstein, Hockney and Picasso hang on the walls.

When I return home with specimens for my wife, still pondering the cultural questions, her wide eyes reflect a simple truth. It is what it is - bling. Swarovski sparkles.