We discover how Saint-Louis and Puirforcat, which share more than six centuries of history, remain relevant
Historic silverware and glassware brands come to Dubai Mall
Nestled between Hermès and Dolce & Gabbana in The Dubai Mall Fashion Avenue extension is a treasure trove of exquisite silverware and elaborate glassware. This is the new home of two cherished French brands, Puiforcat and Saint-Louis, which share an impressive 630 years of history between them.
One might make the mistake of thinking that handblown chandeliers and delicate silver vases are relics from the past. But, talking to Nicolas Cantenot, managing director of silver specialist Puiforcat, and Jérôme de Lavergnolle, chief executive of Saint-Louis, it quickly becomes clear that while these storied houses may be steeped in history, they have their eyes firmly on the future.
Founded in 1820 in Paris, Puiforcat specialises in handcrafted silverware – from elegant, solid silver cutlery to perfectly proportioned art deco coffee pots and delicate caviar sets. The brand established itself as a master of silversmithing early on, and enjoyed a further boost in the 1920s under Jean Puiforcat, who was both a silversmith and an artist heavily involved in the art deco movement. He brought harmony and balance to Puiforcat’s designs, adding a new slant to the very classical pieces it had hitherto offered.
One example is the Cannes cutlery that Jean created for his own wedding, which is still very much in demand today. “In Paris, we have the only remaining workshop in the world that has 15 silversmiths working across all the techniques,” Cantenot explains. “Planishing, chiselling, engraving – everything that makes silversmithing what it is.”
This is no small boast. Each Puiforcat creation, from teaspoons and trays to tumblers and soup tureens, is entirely handmade, using techniques that require years to master.
“We recently launched a Sommelier line, which is a mix of very ancient techniques and the latest technology,” Cantenot continues. “The glass is extremely light, while the heavy base is precision-cut from a solid piece of metal, using very sophisticated machines that operate on five planes of axis.”
Interestingly, it is the silversmiths who programme and operate these new machines, which means they are still involved in every part of the operation. “It has been a process and an evolution,” Cantenot explains, “because obviously the craftsmen have been trained to use their hands. Those very traditional techniques are extremely important for us, so together we had to understand that using a piece of automatic machinery is not against traditional techniques, but can complement them. I think it took a while in everyone’s mind to understand that, and to see that we were using both elements to create our products.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Puiforcat has long been a favourite with royalty, although its clients are of a slightly different sort these days. “We started looking at our history, and we noticed it has always been linked to power, to kings and queens. If you look at who has power today, it is entrepreneurs, and the wealth that they created themselves.”
Today such wealth is found in the marinas of Monte Carlo, Capri and Saint-Tropez. “We decided to focus on our target audience of yachts and jets,” says Cantenot, “because people who drive nice cars could be successful, or maybe they just have a nice car. However, once you talk about yachts and jets…”
While Puiforcat may be about to celebrate its 200th anniversary, it is a young whippersnapper compared to Saint-Louis, the oldest crystal glassmaker in Europe, which was established in 1586 and in 1767 was named Royal Glassworks by Louis XV.
“We have been on the same site since the beginning,” de Lavergnolle explains. “We are totally surrounded by forest, and in the forest there is everything we need to make crystal: sand, lead and potash. In the past, we used wood for the furnaces – wood is the heart of a crystal factory – but now of course it is all electric.”
Even with workers who are considered the best in their field, glassblowing is still notoriously tricky, requiring immense patience and skill, and the ability to endure the extreme heat of the furnaces. Saint-Louis likens the craftsmen to “ogres with the finesse of embroiderers”. Molten glass is picked from the furnace at 1450°C, to be quickly worked before it cools; just adding glass to moulds produces a cloud of steam that is 900°C.
“All the techniques we use today we have used since the 19th century,” de Lavergnolle explains. “We have new colours, which is a matter of mixing metallic oxide with the crystal – but double-layered colours, triple-layered colour, acid etching, all these techniques were invented in the 1800s.”
Finding those “ogres” and preserving these skills is the greatest challenge facing historic brands like Saint-Louis. “It is very important to maintain a good pyramid of ages, because we don’t learn in books, we learn by observation of others,” says de Lavergnolle. “If we don’t maintain a good pyramid, one day the older generation of craftsmen will have retired, taking all their knowledge with them.”
In 1953, for instance, the house struggled to recreate a glass paperweight that required a technique that was commonly used just 50 years earlier. “When a British collector said he would like to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II with a special paperweight with the Queen’s portrait inside, we really had difficulties, because we had forgotten how to do it.”
Today both Puiforcat and Saint-Louis are part of the France-based Hermès Group, which is entirely fitting given the philosophies of all involved. “We share three values,” de Lavergnolle explains.
“Craftsmanship; it takes 10 years to train to make a Birkin as well as to blow glass. Next is quality, because we make no compromise; it has to be perfect. The third is innovation and tradition. The value of the crystal is only 10 per cent. The rest is the value given to it by the human hand.”