The people at Steuben Glass call it "severely simple," but so exquisite. There's a delicate teardrop in the stem, a gossamer sheen to its bowl. A bit costly at $150, perhaps, but still perfect for subtle sherbet, fine champagne, a poached pear . . . and the Saudi Arabian Navy.
The Royal Saudi Arabian Navy, that is. An organization of 10,000 men that in the past five years has bought -- according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- at least $4.5 million in magnificent Steuben glass. Limoges china and Christofle silver. There's Baccarat crystal too, the stemware Czar Nicholas II of Russia used to drink from, then smash.
It comes out to $450 per person -- in dinnerware alone.
"That's amazing," says a U.S. Navy spokesman, reporting that a salad fork used by the top brass in this country costs 99 cents. "Geez. I hope they enjoy it."
"Good Lord," says Nancy Gray, a Washingtonian who uses Baccarat champagne glasses for small Georgetown dinner parties.
"It doesn't fit the bill," says Hassan Yassin, head of the Saudi Arabian Information Office here. "No. Our military are professionals. Who did you hear this from?"
From the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the contracting agent for a $2-billion naval expansion program now underway in two Saudi Arabian port cities. They needed it. In 1978, the entire Royal Saudi Arabian Navy consisted of 1,500 men, 54 small craft, 12 warships and one patrol gunboat.
For the last five years, Corps personnel have not only built barracks but also accompanied Saudi naval representatives on numerous china and crystal-buying trips to elegant New York showrooms.
Everyone usually met in Corps offices near Berryville, Va. From there they went to Manhattan for appointments. "You don't just walk in with someone like this off the street," explains Tom Zumwalt, head of a team here of 14 architects and designers the Corps has assigned to the Saudi project. Zumwalt is also the nephew of former chief of naval operations Elmo Zumwalt Jr.
At one appointment, the Saudis were immediately ushered upstairs to the offices of Baccarat Crystal at 55 E. 57th St. They were served juice or coffee, then shown sample after dazzling sample.
"They're very price-conscious," says Zumwalt, not mentioning the Reed & Barton four-piece silver place setting selected for senior naval officers. It retails at $911.
"Should they buy junk?" Zumwalt asks. "They really do appreciate quality.
And if they want good quality, they'll pay for it."
Zumwalt and his designers are part of an estimated $20 billion military construction program the Corps is managing in Saudi Arabia, fully funded and prepaid by the Saudis. The $2-billion Saudi Naval Expansion Program, or SNEP, represents a portion of that.
The Corps' work in the oil-rich country, once a sluggish desert kingdom but now an OPEC power that's rebuilding whole cities block by block, is conducted under two congressional acts and one State Department agreement. iThe project is given justification by Jimmy Carter, who has said: "Only with the investment of our technology in growing nations . . . can we benefit economically in the future."
The last of the dinnerware was due to be delivered to the Persian Gulf last month. Altogether, it's enough for nearly 1,000 place settings of Baccarat, Limoges, Christofle or Reed & Barton at two almost-completed bases in Jubail and Jidda. Enough for 76 senior officers' homes. And for six VIP houses built for visiting dignitaries. And for the king and his entourage, should they drop by.
(That's specifically who the Steuben glass is for. Senior officers and dignitaries will use Baccarat crystal.)
"Put yourself in that category," explains one sympathetic American designer who's paid to help the Saudi Navy enjoy that category. "You'd want to eat with a stainless steel fork?"
Which is what the regular Saudi Navy personnel will be doing. Oneida stainless flatware specifically. Everyday Corning Ware and Libbey glass, too.
It all carries the Royal Saudi Navy crest of two anchors and one rope, even though the Oneida pattern is called American Colonial. It's made of the highest quality stainless steel, retailing at $14.50 per five-piece place setting.
That's a bargain compared with the Ceralene-Raynaud china, custom-made and waiting for the king, that sells for $530 per three-piece place setting.
In comparison, the china used by the U.S. chief of naval operations is called "GSA-issued, standard hotel/motel grade" and can be had for $20.03 per six-piece place setting. His silver, which is deemed "commercial grade silver plate," goes for $8.66 for seven pieces.
The $530 Saudi pattern is called Conde, has blue-and-gold borders and is made at one of the world's finest porcelain factories in Limoges, a manufacturing town in southwest France. The fine clay of the surrounding countryside creates a translucent china.
"You hold it up to the light and you can see through it," says Sharon Langford of Martin's in Georgetown, a shop that sells less-expensive Ceralene varieties. "That's why it's so exquisite." Her shop also carries Baccarat crystal, which can retail at $350 per goblet.
Only problem is, she has to wait for it. And wait for it. Sometimes up to six and eight months on special orders from France, a situation she and other retailers like Tiffany's and Garfinckel's say is normal. The Saudis began placing their orders several years ago.
At least one major New York distributor of fine French china and crystal (although not Baccarat or Ceralene) will say, very anonymously, that he thinks the huge Saudi order has strained factories and created delays in shipments to regular Baccarat and Ceralene customers. "It has somehow affected deliveries," he explains.
He means smaller deliveries to Baccarat customers waiting, perhaps, for a single pavillon to replace the one broken over the bottle of Christmas Eve burgundy. Or for two Bordeaux glasses to round out the dozen. Either way, it's a situation suggesting that massive orders paid for by Arab petrodollars may buy certain things faster than smaller orders of the American kind.
Absolutely not, says an executive in the Paris offices of Baccarat.
"People wait for years," says Michael Wortham, the firm's commercial director who explains that delays are an accepted part of ordering crystal it takes a worker nine years to learn how to produce.
Wortham won't say, however, what percentage of his production the Saudi order constituted. He will say there is "an insufficient production capacity at the factory that we are trying to compensate for."
Steuben Glass admits to "a blip in our schedule" because of the Saudi order, but Zumwalt of the Corps of Engineers told a design trade magazine called Interiors last month: "Steuben actually can't handle any more glassware orders."
Zumwalt, who has spent 15 years designing for the Corps, regards such orders as all in the line of duty. Others remain a bit stunned.
"Can you imagine fine china and crystal on the seas?" says one startled American china distributor. "It would be falling all over the floors."