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Saint Louis- The Best Crystal Glassware

For over 400 years, a tiny village in the East of France continues to produce the best crystal glassware across the globe.
Roxanne Robinson Oct 11, 2020
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France's savoir-faire is known the world over. While reimagining themselves as a thoroughly 21st century modern and tech-savvy country, the Gallic land is still celebrated for the craftsmanship and know-how steeped in their centuries old artisanal work. Nowhere is this more evident than in Saint Louis Crystal's time-honored traditions, France’s oldest crystal house and the purveyor of arguably the best crystal glassware on the market.

History

Saint Louis sprang from the Müntzthal glassworks company, which was established in 1586 as Europe was recovering from religious ideological conflicts and awash with Renaissance-era art movements. The period was marked by painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and literature, which promoted a more individualistic view of man, a return to classical learning, and conscious reconnection to nature's beauty. It was here, in le Grand Est region of France - close to the German border, that stunning crystal glassware was created just outside the Northern Vosges Regional Nature Park (as it is referred to today). The forest's mystical air lent itself to this new alchemist magic as did its natural riches: silica sand, potash from ferns, firewood, and river water, which combined to make the now-iconic crystal glassware.

By the 18th century, the tiny village in Müntzthal became Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche. In 1767 French King Louis the XV granted the company the verrerié royal (or Royal Glassworks mark) giving them the King's official warrant. Shortly thereafter, in 1781, the manufacturer began to create the new genuine crystal glassware developed by Englishman George Ravenscroft. While the Italians and Mittel Europa were dabbling in versions of crystal works, Britain is credited with first developing proper crystal glass.

What makes crystal different from regular glass? First, it's the impetus for the expression "crystal clear" when saying something is understood correctly. Crystal's clarity is much higher than regular glass, making it the ideal materiality for lighting, wine glasses, and even jewelry. Glass is generally made from sand, soda ash, and limestone, whereas lead is the differentiating ingredient in crystal, at least 24 percent or higher. Concerns about safety and advancements resulted in lead-free variation of crystal glassware that instead use barium oxide, zinc oxide, or potassium oxide. But despite the heavy metal additive, crystal glass is generally less durable than regular glass. It's crafted much thinner, making it easier to break—one reason it's traditionally reserved for special occasions.

The secretive glassblowers at Saint Louis quickly realized the potential that lead added to the glass. In the factory’s vast underground caves where the workshop is housed, the crystal becomes a molten mixture at 1,450 Celsius or 2,642 degrees Fahrenheit. Lead made the glass soft and more malleable, which allowed for more malleability to showcase detailed patterns and designs. The razor-sharp edges inherent to crystal glassware, in appearance only, and precise etchings are attributions that have come to define a fine crystal. This ancestral knowledge of the craft and skill have been passed on from generation to generation until today. In fact, many of the craftsmen hail from the same region, or the nearby tiny village of Lorraine, to this day.

By 1829 the company officially renamed themselves Cristallerie Royale de Saint-Louis. It introduced the concept of a formal set of glasses to appoint a fine dining table with the Trianon service that included: a water glass, a Bordeaux glass, a Burgundy, a champagne flute, to name a few. Soon, the demand for crystal glasses spread across the globe. By 1837 the company began to experiment with its designs and added deep rich color to its crystal glassware.

As the 1800s wore on to the Industrial Age, tableware, vases, and lighting fixtures of the finest crystal glassware were found in the stateliest of homes and establishments. It was the mid-18th century when Saint Louis would introduce chandeliers. The master glass blowers and cutter skills evolved to create intricate hand-engraved patterns. They also began to hand-decorate their crystal glassware designs with 24-carat gold or platinum, and added metal oxides to the clear crystal, making them pioneers in the advent of colored crystal. In 1844 at the French Industrial Exhibition, they presented the first pieces to have a double and triple overlay on opaque enamel which created a layered color décor method called: casing. This technique furthered its reputation among the best crystal glassware-makers in France. The treatment was considered so sophisticated and avant garde that, in 1895, the French manufacturer was commissioned by the King of Nepal Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah to create an exceptional candelabra for his palace.

With over 300 years of history behind it, as the 20th century unfolded, Saint Louis began to establish signature crystal glassware collections. Thistle is one of them, named for the French town of Nancy, whose emblematic signature is Chardon or “thistle.” The Chardon collection was launched in 1908 and christened with its Anglican name. With Venetian-style stripes, bevel-cuts, and either 24-carat gold or platinum trim depicting the thorny brush, the Thistle collection is still going strong today. Thistle would reflect the Art Nouveau movement of the time, as the house drew upon designers to collaborate and share their talents, such as Paul Nicolas, Jean Sala, Jean Luce, Michel Colle, and Maurice Dufrêne. These designers and more would also infuse Saint Louis with Art Deco motifs that came into play in the 1920s and gained traction, especially in the U.S., by the 1930s.

Other notable permanent collections include Tommy, designed in 1928. It came to prominence during a stately lunch in honor of King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth, affectionately known today as the Queen's Mom. In 1938, the Chateau of Versailles hosted a lunch with 200 distinguished guests in attendance to honor the British King and Queen. Hosted by then French president Albert Lebrun, the event - which took place in the legendary Hall of Mirrors - was a symbol of goodwill between the French and British. At each guests' place setting was a series of eleven different styles of the Tommy crystal glassware collection. Tommy would become Saint Louis Crystal’s most stately and recognized collection to date with its heritaged legacy and signature cuts.

During WWII, primarily due to its proximity to the German border, Saint Louis crystal was forced to shut down its ovens on several occasions. Starting and stopping these infernos is no easy feat. The village of Saint Louis des Bitche transformed into a field hospital, and the crystal manufacturers' buildings were used as hospital space, given their proximity to the battlefields. Though several bombings hit the area, Saint Louis crystal works evaded damage.

Through the 1980s and early 2000s, other collections such as the Apollo (1979), Bubbles (1992), Oxymore (2012), and Twist (2015) would become classic collections for the house. Famed designers including Eric Gizard, Hervé van der Straeten, and José Lévy would create pieces for the legendary house. Recognizing the importance of this French heritage, the Hermés group acquired the Maison in 1989. Since the early 2000s, their lighting expanded to include a contemporary category and led them to work with directional designers such as: Kiki van Eijk, Paola Navone, and Ionna Vautrin. In 2012 they created a 220-light chandelier for a private residence and then restored an antique 85-light in a salon at the Comédie Francaise in Paris.

Folia Collection

One of the foremost designers to create a house collection is French product and interior designer, Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance. In creating the Folia collection, the designer was inspired by the power of the forest area that surrounds the Saint Louis crystal company, and the manufacturers "preserved and secluded" space deep within those woods. "I wanted to express its magic," Duchafour-Lawrance explains, "Between the fire and the cold, its local roots, the permanence of its expertise and the concentration that prevails."

Each piece of the 25-piece range reflects the values and craftsmanship of the Saint Louis company. By combining the lighting pieces with wood, the designer recalls the Japanese concept of tsuboniwa, which dedicates space in ones' home to evoke the great outdoors. Storage shelves in the workshop inspired the bare, raw wood used in combination with crystal glassware to create lighting fixtures within the collection. The oval shape of the fixtures allude to the kiln's mouth, which provides the glassmaker with molten crystal for the blowpipe, while the geometric cuts serve as an ode to the leaves of the surrounding Moselle forest.

The project marked the first time Duchafour-Lawrance combined wood and crystal. He refers to the forest that is the manufacturer’s lifeblood, but also its mystique. “It’s also a fantasy. The forest is imposing and magnificent, with its clusters of tall trees,” explained the designer, “The cut of the Folia crystal is inspired by a leaf that can tessellate to infinity or fly onto the crystal, as though a wind of folly was blowing, echoing the countless legends of the forest.” The designer dipped his feet into the art of crystal making with this project and quickly learned its challenges. “Crystal is a complex material, as magical as it is indomitable. It’s not like wood, for example, that anyone can sculpt relatively easily,” he remarked.

Even when working with a company of highly-skilled craftsmen with more than 400 years of expertise, Duchafour-Lawrance was able to teach them a new technique to realize his vision.

"My job is to see between lines, identifying what to alter slightly, to create new techniques and forms," he explained, "For example, the stemmed glass. For the cut of the glass to begin very low on the stem, we adjusted the glass's depth to that of the cut, without breaking it. Hundreds of tests were carried out before we succeeded. The result is unrivaled diffraction of light in a stemmed glass. It gives the impression of drinking pure light."

That light, the designer says, is what gives crystal glassware the advantage over plain glass.

"Crystal is more refined, more beautiful. It contains lead particles that give this incredible transparency and increase light reflection. It can capture and amplify the slightest ray of light, which makes every piece look so precious."

Roxanne Robinson
Roxanne Robinson is an award-winning Paris-based American journalist covering luxury and fashion industries with over 25 years of experience. I spent over 18 years at WWD, covering sportswear, accessories and fine jewelry. My career witnessed the shift from print media to the digital age. I gained expert knowledge of the design world, wholesale and retail markets as well as the marketing that supports them. I met endless creatives and business people who create luxury from inception to POS with the consumer. My work has appeared in Forbes.com, BoF, The Hollywood Reporter, CRFashionbook.com, The Jewelry Journal as well in-house publications and websites at Bally, Pomellato, Au Depart and Editorialist.com among others.
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