Crystal Saints Breathe Old-World Values into Contemporary Design

With its pioneering spirit and craftsmanship, France’s first crystal manufacturer has a formula that could continue to lead the industry for centuries to come.

A crystal lighting fixture made by Saint-Louis. (Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
A crystal lighting fixture made by Saint-Louis. (Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)

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.

A wood and crystal table, part of the Saint-Louis Folia collection. (Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
A wood and crystal table, part of the Saint-Louis Folia collection. (Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
A vase (left) and glasses (right), part of the Tommy collection. (Photos courtesy of Saint-Louis)
A vase (left) and glasses (right), part of the Tommy collection. (Photos courtesy of Saint-Louis)

“You can’t survive for so long without being a brand from your time. It’s impossible,” says de Lavergnolle, who notes Saint-Louis produces crystal for ages seven to seventy. “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.

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 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.

(Photos courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photos courtesy of Saint-Louis)

In 1989, Hermès bought Saint-Louis, aligning two iconic brands that share the same spirit and artisanal integrity — “craftsmanship… quality… and a combination of tradition and innovation,” says de Lavergnolle.

“[At Hermès], they stitch by hand. Everything is done by hand. We blow by mouth, we cut by hand, so we really are at the same level of craftsmanship,” he says. “In Saint-Louis, a simple flaw and we destroy it. For Hermès, a simple scratch on a bag, and they don’t sell it. We have very high level of respect for the product, and we never compromise on quality.”

Most of the techniques Saint-Louis uses are from the 19th century, producing 300,000 objects of beauty every year.

“The two brands have a lot of respect for their roots,” he continues. “We understand our past, but we use this past to invent our future.”

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,” he 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 honoring 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 poured down, 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.

“Because they work by team, you have the impression of ballet…. It’s very dangerous, but they move like dancers.” -Jérôme de Lavergnolle

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

“When you look at [the artisans], because they work by team, you have the impression of ballet,” says de Lavergnolle. “It’s very impressive because they have their parts, they have their crystal. 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.

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

“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 visible 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.”

(Photos courtesy of Saint-Louis)
(Photos courtesy of Saint-Louis)

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, but it’s an internal one, filled with as much failure as success.

“We have to be prévalent,” says de Lavergnolle — the craftsmen must “prevail.”

Every year, Saint-Louis recruits France’s most skilled 18-year-olds to start their training.

“This is very important for me to maintain a very good pyramid of age, because if you don’t pay attention to that, then one day the elders will retire and they will bring with them their know-how,” he says. “The transmission is [key], and it’s very important for me year after year to recruit new people, in order to pass the information to the young generation.”

He adds that the average age of the artisans is around 36. Though the craftsmen are young, they’re all adept at every facet of the craft.

“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 grey, sky blue, dark blue, chartreuse, green, red, amethyst, purple, and amber. The special shades require different metallic oxides in addition to sand and potash, a process too risky for many other crystal-makers.

(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)

“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.

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

Every three to four years, Saint-Louis’ finest artisans enter Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) — a national craftsmanship competition to determine the “Best Craftsmen of France” from 16 industries. For crystal-makers, each master must craft a crystal piece by himself, typically taking 600 hours.

Winners receive the award directly from the president of France, a distinction of tremendous esteem. Saint-Louis has nine MOF working in its manufactory today, but five more of its craftsmen are currently preparing for the next exhibition.

“It’s a very, very, very difficult diploma,” emphasizes de Lavergnolle.

Harmony of old and new

The legacy of Saint-Louis is a seemingly dichotomous one. On one hand, the brand is steeped in history, tradition and centuries-old know-how. On the other, the company has always been a pioneer, setting standards for excellence, achieving with crystal what was thought to be impossible.

But staying relevant doesn’t mean Saint-Louis follows trends. Instead, it sets them. Furniture and crystal-makers today, for example, have been working with famous designers to create signature collections. Saint-Louis has been doing this since the beginning of the 20th century, working with famous designers, such as Jean Sala during the art deco period.

“For us, [working with designers] brings you new blood in your creation, in your production,” he says, noting they release new collections every year. “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.”

The delicate relationship between designer and craftsman is one of balance. The designers often have imaginative ideas of what to create, which can sometimes be rejected by the craftsmen, who know what is and isn’t possible. Before a new designer conceptualizes any lighting, decoration, tableware, or glassware, de Lavergnolle has a mandatory rule: the designer must first visit the manufactory.

“It’s very important that they breathe in the atmosphere of Saint-Louis,” de Lavergnolle says. He has the designer visit the museum, the factory, the attic with over 3,000 pieces from the past. And, of course, the designer must watch the artisans perform the “dance” in the hot area, to witness that special spirit of Saint-Louis.

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 for the customary pre-design ritual 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 hot room. “When you have the mould in action, you put the crystal in, which is very shiny because of the crystal and its temperature.”

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.

De Lavergnolle laughs, remembering the journey with van Eijk, illustrative of the typical designer-artisan relationship at Saint-Louis — harmonizing an eccentric, inconceivable concept with centuries of master craftsmanship.

A lamp designed by Kiki van Eijk for Saint-Louis, as part of the Matrice collection. It is made out of crystal, though inspired by the look of an old cast-iron mould used for forming crystal. (Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
A lamp designed by Kiki van Eijk for Saint-Louis, as part of the Matrice collection. It is made out of crystal, though inspired by the look of an old cast-iron mould used for forming crystal. (Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
When this lamp — which is in the shape of a mould used to form crystal, yet is itself made of crystal — is opened, the light grows brighter. When it is closed, the light is dim. (Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)
When this lamp — which is in the shape of a mould used to form crystal, yet is itself made of crystal — is opened, the light grows brighter. When it is closed, the light is dim.
(Photo courtesy of Saint-Louis)

“It was a long process, but finally the shape of this lamp is like the mould — [but instead of cast iron,] it’s in 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 embodies more than exquisite beauty, it reflects the soul of Saint-Louis — reviving the past to create an unimaginably beautiful, sparkling future.

Saint-Louis will display its work at the Luxury Home & Design Show in Vancouver, June 21–24, 2018. The show is hosted by Magnifissance’s sister media, Taste of Life. Learn more about the Luxury Home & Design Show.