Centuries of Craftsmanship Culminate in Winsome Little Worlds of Crystal

Saint-Louis paperweights crystallize moments of beauty.

(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)

French author and Nobel laureate Colette wrote in Paris From My Window, “To a poet, silence is an acceptable response, even a flattering one.”

That sacred silence, like a packed theatre hanging on an operatist’s final note, isn’t only a desired response — it’s a state of being in which creativity flows forth. Though art can flourish practically anywhere, an environment of stillness and clarity can help nourish it.

To help organize her life and channel her ingenuity, Colette famously relied on a collection of mini monoliths — her Saint-Louis paperweights. Saint-Louis describes a paperweight, “This static object has always been of precious help in achieving peace of mind. Words no longer fly hither and thither, papers cease to swirl around like autumn leaves, writing stays… in place.”

(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)

These globes of clear crystal hold in stasis a moment of beauty — a play of colours and patterns created over the course of centuries by Saint-Louis’s alchemist-like artisans. Saint-Louis CEO Jérôme de Lavergnolle says paperweights are the “crown jewels” of this iconic crystal-maker, founded in 1586 in the Vosges mountains of France.

Born again

Stone and bronze paperweights were part of the quintessential writer’s tool kit in the 18th century, along with a quill pen and ink-pot. By the mid-19th century, European glassmakers had begun making highly ornate paperweights, which became luxurious collectibles. Despite the rapid industrialization of the time, these handcrafted objets d’art remained popular, bearing testimony to the continued adoration of artisanship.

In 1845, Saint-Louis produced its first paperweight, and it continued leading the market for collectible paperweights until the trend melted away 15 years later.

(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)

It was Paul Jokelson, collector, author, and founder of the Paperweight Collectors’ Association, who revived Saint-Louis’s paperweight art in 1953. He asked Saint-Louis to craft a commemorative paperweight for the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II. It was an opportunity for the famous cristallerie to distill its age-old know-how into embellished paperweights. Taste-makers, such as fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin, picked up on the reemerging trend and popularized it.

Ever since, Saint-Louis has been producing new limited-edition collections every year, each signed, numbered, and dated.

Workmanship of wonder

A defining characteristic of Saint-Louis crystal is its vibrant and diverse spectrum of colours. Using many colours is a risky endeavour for a crystal-maker.

Colours are created using metal oxides — for example, red is made with copper oxide, explains de Lavergnolle. “The temperature of fusion, the temperature of expansion from one metallic oxide to another one is not the same,” de Lavergnolle says. “If you don’t respect this temperature of expansion, the risk is that you break your piece when you cut it.”

(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)

The expertise and skill of all Saint-Louis craftsmen takes about ten years to cultivate. This includes the dexterity of assembling paperweights inside a furnace that never falls below 500°C. An intuitive, almost sixth-sense-like precision is required. Without the precise timing of the artisan’s movements, the piece can easily form air bubbles or become deformed.

The crystal-maker uses techniques called millefiori and filigree. “Millefiori” — Italian for “thousand flowers” — is a technique in which bundles of tiny crystal rods are intricately wound together and heated so they become fused. This creates a paperweight with a cross-section that resembles a bouquet of tiny, crystal flowers.

Filigree is commonly known as a technique for ornate metalworking in jewelry — fine strands of gold, silver, or other precious metals are intertwined to form patterns. Saint-Louis has transmuted this beloved art-form for use with crystal.

(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)

A third technique often used by Saint-Louis artisans crafting paperweights, is to heat crystal with a blowtorch, making it malleable enough to shape it into delicate flower petals and other such ethereal forms to be eternally encased in fine, clear crystal.

Saint-Louis will brought 13 limited-edition paperweights to the 2018 Luxury Home & Design Show — hosted by our sister media, Taste of Life, in June — to draw guests into the timeless beauty of the moment.

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