The Crystal Empires of FranceSaturday, March 24, 2012, part 1
Lorraine & Alsace, France
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A couple of years ago, while in Paris for Thanksgiving, we were strolling along the cobbled lanes of Isle Saint Louis in Paris, and stopped to enjoy the window display of an intriguing antiquaire on rue La Regrattier. An elegant Art Deco pair of crystal candlesticks kept calling Kirk's name, and, carefully cushioned in bubble wrap, they came back to Virginia with us, where they now are one of the first things you see when you enter our home.
Kirk wanted to know the provenance of these beauties, and Monsieur Kieken, the owner, told us they were from the renowned Saint Louis crystal factory in northeastern France.
When we saw that very factory, and the associated museum, listed on this Lorraine-Alsace trip itinerary offered by the French Tourist Office, we were excited that we would be able to see the place from where our candlesticks came.
The Cristallerie Royal Saint Louis was founded in 1787 by order of Louis XV, beginning as a glass factory. Since the discovery of crystal fifteen years later, the factory has been devoted to the design and production of crystal items.
A fabulous crystal chandelier hangs above the bare earth, surrounded by a winding showcase of centuries of dazzling craftsmanship.
Before we look through the museum, we must first see from where these gorgeous pieces come.... the glowing furnaces, kept at a temperature of at least 1200 degrees fahrenheit, heat the room as high as the catwalk upon which we stand... glad we're not here in the summer!
Molten crystal streams from one furnace - we watch from a safe distance!
After our factory tour, we're free to tour the museum, and shop at the boutique. I tell the museum guide about our candlesticks, describing their stacked square base, and he immediately knows the era and the designer, Jean Sala, and says that some of his work of the same style is in the museum, as well as in the Paris Museum of Decorative Arts on rue de Rivoli. So now I'm on a hunt, and breezing past the ornate styles of centuries past, I head for the Art Deco period, and there it is, a candlestick with the same base, designed by Monsieur Sala.
Although we're tempted by some gorgeous champagne flutes in the boutique (how can we resist such a factory price?!) we make it back on the bus without any more crystal delights.
Next stop, a more familiar name, Lalique, just down the road in Wingen-Sur-Moder in Alsace. This is the village where Lalique set up his factory in 1921, after being told by the Saint Louis factory that they were not interested in jewelry. Baccarat, also, is not far from here, and has its foundations in the Saint Louis factory as well. Why are there so many crystal and glass factories in this northeast corner of France? The two reasons, we're told, are the raw material of sand and dirt, and the abundance of forests - the wood was needed to stoke the fires.
Before viewing the recently opened Lalique museum, we're invited to lunch at their café.... and the delicious meal is a work of art on its own! We'll see these delicate green-stemmed glasses often in the next couple of days - used, as they're intended, for Alsace's prized Riesling wine.
And then, a feast for the eyes - one piece after another of Lalique's exquisite jewelry,
perfume bottles designed for particular fragrance- houses, and larger pieces - vases, urns, and more, delight our eyes.
It's a good thing that our guides are hurrying us along to the next stop... that boutique was even more tempting than the last one!