If you’re living in North America, it can sometimes be hard to understand the richness of brands from across the Atlantic that have a longer history than your own country. Of course, you can recognize the unparalleled external qualities — the workmanship, the design. But what might be less visible, and often forgotten, is the timeless spirit of these brands — their values, their essence.
Cristallerie Royale de Saint-Louis, a prestigious title bestowed by France’s King Louis XV, was the first crystal manufacturer in continental Europe. With a history of over four centuries, its legacy is as alive today as it ever was.
“[One] must understand and learn the past, not to repeat the past but to imagine the future,” says Saint-Louis CEO Jérôme de Lavergnolle. Saint-Louis has a special soul, one that’s infused day after day, century after century, into hand-crafted crystal objets d’art. It begins with respect and reverence for craftsmanship, quality, and beauty — the hallmarks of French culture.
When that rich heritage was under attack during the First World War, Britain came to France’s aid. The cristallerie would never forget such fidelity. In 1938, the president of France invited King George VI to a banquet at Versailles, and the King inquired the name of the exquisite collection of Saint-Louis crystal adorning the table.
“We gave the name of ‘Tommy’ to that collection,” says de Lavergnolle, referring to the nickname of British soldiers who helped save France. “It was a way to pay tribute to them.” Last year, Saint-Louis celebrated 90 years of its iconic Tommy line, adding a touch of colour.
Folia, one of the newest collections, expresses both admiration for the company’s history and heritage while also pioneering its future. The 25-piece collection includes customary tableware, vases, and lighting but also furniture, a new niche for Saint-Louis’ artisans. The pieces are made of crystal and wood, with leaf-like designs — in homage to the forests surrounding Saint-Louis’ first and only cristallerie in northeastern France.
“You can’t survive for so long without being a brand from your time. It’s impossible,” says de Lavergnolle. “If you always look behind you, you’re just dead. It’s very exciting, but at the same time you have the pressure of history. You have to understand this history, these roots, so you can imagine something different.”
Cracking the code
The Münzthal glassworks was established in 1586, embedded in the forested region of Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche, close to the German border. The manufactory hasn’t moved in 432 years, though it was renamed Saint-Louis by the King of France two centuries after its inception.
In its early days, the raw materials surrounding the glassmaker were essential — local ingredient-rich sand from the Vosges River, ample wood to fire the furnaces and melt the sand into glass, and river water to cool the hand-blown works.
In the 17th century, as Italy and Bohemia experimented with producing crystalline, an Englishman perfected the formula and technique, which the Brits guarded with utmost secrecy.
“Everybody wanted to rediscover the formula of lead crystal, but nobody could,” says de Lavergnolle. A century later, Saint-Louis discovered the recipe on its own, and then shifted focus to exclusively making crystal.
First impressions last
The Saint-Louis manufactory rests in Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche, a village of only 600 people, of which 200 work for the company.
“The influence of Saint-Louis in the region is very important, economically-speaking and from a cultural point of view,” de Lavergnolle says. Some employees are seventh-generation workers whose ancestors started with the cristallerie in the 1800s.
De Lavergnolle remembers perfectly the first time he visited the factory, in early 2010. He had just become the CEO, after many years in different positions with Hermès. He was attending a ceremony honouring long-time artisans with médailles de travail — “work medals” — signifying employment with Saint-Louis for 25, 30 or 40 years.
“Imagine giving the gold medal to someone who spent more than 40 years with you; it’s a very important moment,” he says.
Snow fell heavily, blocking de Lavergnolle in for the night.
“A small village in the middle of nowhere, snow all around you,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “But at the same time, people were so proud to be part of this brand, so proud to receive those medals for the work. I was very happy because when you work with someone who is passionate about his work, about his job, you are very excited to join the company life and the brand and people.”
Fire and ice
From the outside, the atelier appears “very, very old,” says de Lavergnolle of its 19th-century construction. But inside, the vigor and magic of Saint-Louis never stop as the kilns run 24/7.
When the CEO entered the manufactory for the first time, the experience was captivating, sensory. The manufactory is divided into two parts, the first being where the artisans blow the crystal, an arms-length away from kilns heated to 1,450 degrees Celsius.
“When they use their pipe to take the crystal in the furnace, their left hand is approximately at 50 centimetres from this source of temperature, so it’s very hot,” he says.
The clanking, banging, cutting, shouting, boosters blowing gas, and fires roaring all seem to somehow melt away with the majestic movements on the floor.
“When you look at [the artisans], because they work by team, you have the impression of ballet,” says de Lavergnolle. “It’s very dangerous, but they move like dancers — it’s fascinating. You could spend hours looking at them.”
Like the dual nature of life itself, the second section — the cold area — is its polar opposite. It’s where workers cut glass, engrave, gild, polish and make decorations, using acid etching or covering motifs in 24k gold.
“You don’t need to speak, so you are very focused on what you’re doing,” says de Lavergnolle. He contrasts the look of the room with the constant amber glow of the furnaces.
“It’s very white in the cold part, because you need light to really see what you’re doing, especially when you use the wheel engraving — it’s very delicate,” he says.
Pass it forward
Saint-Louis’ doors are open to the public, but de Lavergnolle doesn’t worry about Saint-Louis’ centuries-old know-how and trade secrets out in plain view. It takes ten years of training before Saint-Louis artisans are skilled enough to produce actual products. So, even if other companies try to copy Saint-Louis’ exact formula and techniques, the competitors haven’t cultivated the dexterity to produce comparable works.
“We still blow everything by mouth and cut everything by hand, so it’s the highest level of craftsmanship you can find,” says de Lavergnolle. “There is the hand of the man — you have to repeat day after day, the same gesture.”
The artisans learn how to craft all of Saint-Louis’ collections, not just one product, adding to the enormous difficulty. The training is more than just a physical test, it’s also an internal one, filled with as much failure as success.
“We have to be prévalent,” says de Lavergnolle — the craftsmen must “prevail.”
“The worker, the glassblower, he has to respect the way to shape the legs, the stem, the thickness of the piece. It’s very important to have a certain regularity. If you don’t respect the proportion of the raw material inside and the temperature, then you would have bubbles,” says de Lavergnolle. “But you never stop learning. The simple reason is that you don’t learn the job in books. You learn by the observation of the others.”
One of the most renowned characteristics of Saint-Louis crystal is its variety of colour, an alchemy that reflects precise, superior technique and workmanship, not a secret recipe.
“We really are the master of colours,” says de Lavergnolle. Saint-Louis uses over 15 colours, such as sky blue, dark blue, chartreuse, green, red, amethyst, purple, and amber. The special shades require different metallic oxides in addition to sand and potash, in a process too risky for many other crystal-makers.
“The temperature of fusion, the temperature of expansion from one metallic oxide to another is not the same,” he says. “If you don’t respect this temperature of expansion, the risk is that you break your piece when you cut it.”
Saint-Louis also uses a special double- or even triple-layer technique, whereas competitors generally just paint the crystal.
“This is very specific to Saint-Louis,” he says. “The double-layering consists in mixing a thin coloured crystal layer in the surface with clear crystal inside before blowing.” Adding layers of crystal together only makes the process that much more fragile.
Harmony of old and new
“If you ask me what is exactly the style of Saint-Louis, there is not exactly a style because we cross so many periods, from art deco to art nouveau, from modern to classic,” de Lavergnolle says. “For us, [working with designers] brings you new blood in your creation.”
One collection emblematic of Saint-Louis’ principles of tradition and innovation is Matrice, by Dutch designer Kiki van Eijk. De Lavergnolle invited her to the factory to observe and kindle her creativity. The tour did not disappoint.
Van Eijk went down to the basement and was immediately entranced.
“She saw thousands of moulds lying on shelves like dead bodies,” says de Lavergnolle, a stark contrast to what she had just seen in the lively hot room.
Immediately, van Eijk said, “I want to resuscitate those moulds and make a lamp.” Her idea was to make a crystal lamp that looks like the mould itself.
“It was a long process, but finally the shape of this lamp is like the mould — [but instead of cast iron,] it’s crystal,” he says. “You open it, and the more you open, the more the lamp is shining because of the LED inside. It’s a lovely object, very modern, but at the same time with a strong link with the past of Saint-Louis.”
The Matrice collection reflects the soul of Saint-Louis — reviving the past to create a sparkling future.
By JH White