Living European History - Crystal by Saint-Louis
In a small valley in the Northern Vosges, surrounded by dense forest, lies the French commune Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche. At first glance, nobody would suspect that a manufactory in the heart of this sleepy village has been producing the crystal of kings for more than four centuries.
The valley, known as “Münzthal” at the time, was first home to a glass production site in 1586. Its dense forests offered glassmakers everything they needed to produce glass. However, the Thirty Years' War, one of the most destructive wars in European history that started in 1618, soon forced them to halt production indefinitely.
In 1767, King Louis XV breathed new life into the valley when he issued letters patent to rebuild the old glass works. In honour of King Louis IX, he gave it the title "Saint-Louis" – the Verrerie Royale de Saint-Louis was born.
From glass to crystal
In 1781, the royal glass works’ manager M. de Beaufort achieved a historical breakthrough. He succeeded in producing high quality lead crystal. Until then, England had had a monopoly on coveted “crystal” glassware and had kept the necessary know-how a well-guarded secret. Thus, Saint-Louis became the first manufactory of lead crystal in Continental Europe.
As a result, Saint-Louis also became the first manufactory in France to be awarded the title "Cristallerie". When it switched to producing lead crystal exclusively in 1825, it began its rise to an industry-leading innovation forge. Saint-Louis invented and perfected new cuts, designed glassware with ever more daring shapes and colours, and applied for one patent after another.
In 1834, Saint-Louis even revolutionised the "art de la table" with the notion of using differently shaped drinkware for different beverages – an idea that has remained a matter of course to this day, not only in the haute cuisine.
Cultural heritage meets innovation - a new era
The Cristallerie Saint-Louis became part of the renowned French Hermès Group in 1995. The acquisition gave Saint-Louis the opportunity to revive designs from centuries past such as Thistle and Tommy. The manufactory gained the opportunity to create new glassware, lamps and decorative collections in collaboration with artists and designers such as Hervé van der Straeten, Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance and Paola Navone.
Since 2007, visitors can relive the long history of the Cristallerie Saint-Louis in the in-house museum "La Grande Place". The museum with its post-modern design is integrated into the historic factory grounds. More than four centuries of glass production come back to life across several floors.
The fine art of crystal production
Modern glass factories can be split into three main parts: the batch house, the hot end and the cold end. The artisanal glass production of the Cristallerie Saint-Louis only has two parts, the hot atelier and the cold atelier. They are situated next to each other and work closely together. In both, Saint-Louis employs many artisans who are considered to be among the best in France.
Inside the hot atelier, the guiding principles are precision and speed. Glassmakers melt the ingredients for their crystal at 1450° C (2640° F). Glassblowers shape glowing hot gobs of glass into hollow bodies with glass pipes and wooden moulds. The pliable glass bodies are formed and cut at lightning speed until they reach their final shape. The artisans move in unison like a living machine in between the glowing hot furnaces.
While the hot atelier requires speed, the cold studio requires patience. Grinders, polishers and engravers strive for perfection during the finishing process. A single mistake can destroy the precious glassware, particularly during the final polishing.
The most time-consuming task of all is applying gold and platinum decorations by hand. The artisan has to brush the wafer-thin precious metals onto finely etched patterns with unmatched precision. Only after a strict quality control does each piece receive its signature.
The style icons of Saint-Louis
Only the most outstanding designs are worthy of this amount of manual labour – and Saint-Louis’ unique designs brim over with confidence and style. Throughout the centuries, the DNA of Saint-Louis has remained instantly recognisable, from Art Nouveau and Art Deco to Post-Modernism.
The catalogue of Saint-Louis is filled with timeless style icons. Classically opulent designs such as Thistle from 1913 and Apollo from 1979 harmonise perfectly with clear-cut geometric designs such as Bubbles from 1992 and Oxymore from 2012.
The "Folia" collection by designer Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance from 2018 is exploring a new concept. It includes not only glassware, but also lamps and furniture that combine cold glass and warm wood in exciting ways – a new chapter in the long history of Saint-Louis.