Essay #06: Baccarat - Crystal Clear

In the last Salone del Mobile, the fair dedicated to the newest products and innovations in the world of design, one exhibit was especially eye-catching for celebrating one of the oldest European brands – Baccarat. With the suggestive name of '250 ans de Modernité', the display showcased the notable work that the iconic French house has developed over that period and how it has adapted its renowned crystal pieces to modern times. Held at the San Carpoforo church in Milan, with the austere atmosphere providing the perfect backdrop for the sumptuous Baccarat pieces to truly shine, the exhibit (and the chosen location) could well be a silent homage to its founder, Louis de Montmorency-Laval, bishop of Metz between 1760 and 1801.

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Founded in the town of Baccarat, after king Louis XV authorised the bishop to set up a glass factory on the banks of the river Meurthe in the Lorraine region, the brand began making waves when businessman Aimé-Gabriel d’Artigues took over the company in 1816 and steered it towards producing crystal pieces. Benefiting from the refined predilection of Louis XVIII (and his successors), as well as the affluent families and the international monarchy of that time, for luxurious pieces, Baccarat soon prospered, having received its first royal commission in 1823 – a goblet service.
The epitome of the French art de vivre, Baccarat became an undeniable icon in making elegant decorative pieces, the first Gallic manufacturer to create intricate crystal candelabras and develop this material in various shades, such as the famous ruby red, which earned it a gold medal at the 1839 National Exhibition of Industrial Products.

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Having implemented innovative social policies from very early on – insurance for the glass-cutters in 1835, a pension system since 1851 and free schooling for all workers' children since 1868 –, the relationship with the employees, particularly with the artisans who work with the crystal, has always been a key success factor for Baccarat.

With the help of 25 talented 'Ouvriers de France' (the best French artisans), the brand continues its long tradition, creating exceptional pieces that are blow-moulded and enhanced by the fire.

Besides the vast archive of 65,000 moulds and 200,000 designs, little has changed over the last 250 years in the Baccarat workshop. The ovens, heated to a temperature of 1250ºC, melt a mixture of materials that make the crystal. After this process, the blower, with the help of an assistant, dips a pipe into a clay crucible in the furnace which gathers the crystal. In a forceful yet gentle manner, the artisan moulds the crystal through a series of steps, using the blower and decreasing temperatures to complete the task. After moving to the glass cutter, who removes the marks left by the forceps and buffers the piece, it's the turn of the engraver to create distinct marks on the crystal – painstaking work that can take many hours. To complete the process at the hands of these experienced artisans, the gilder applies a mixture of gold powder and a binding agent over the reheated enamel, a technique used on perfume bottles and heraldic services.

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Although Baccarat is inextricably linked to its history and its legacy being the inspiration behind its creations, the brand has always stood out for transforming tradition into creation through elaborate technical and stylistic innovations. With a philosophy of developing timeless pieces that transmit the beauty of the crystal and the craftsmanship, working with both emerging and established designers has been vital in creating new, bold collections.

Of course, Philippe Starck is one of the creatives behind some of Baccarat's most recognised pieces. Besides designing the brand's new Parisian headquarters in 2003, Starck is the author of Zénith Noir, an impressive chandelier in black crystal, the perfect antithesis to the traditional and iconic clear crystal chandelier. Recognised for modernising classic forms, the French designer also developed the Our Fire lamps and candlesticks and the Harcourt collection, a reinterpretation of the oldest pieces in the Baccarat archive, the royal favourites since 1841.

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Blending art and design, Arik Lévy is another figure who has actively collaborated with Baccarat. Considered an intuitive designer, the Israeli used his original style to develop pieces such as the sculptural Intangible vases and the Torch lamps – an inventive approach to traditional design.
Known for his creative vitality and for having brought back some whimsy to the design world, Spaniard Jaime Hayon has created various unique objects, blending crystal and porcelain in an exuberant way. Whilst the Zoo collection presents a series of delicate and ironic animal-shaped boxes, the Candy lamps show just how the Baccarat tradition perfectly blends with more contemporary lines.

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Also graced with the talent of Marcel Wanders, who designed objects with clear references to the natural world; Aude Lechère, author of the exclusive jewellery line; Kenzo Takada, who designed an Oriental-inspired collection; and the veteran Michele de Lucchi, among others, Baccarat has surrounded itself with the best creatives from various fields to make crystal the material of choice for producing exclusive decorative pieces. Despite the more elaborate pieces taking more than 60 pairs of hands to complete, the mastery of blending production with innovation heralds a bright future for Baccarat, perhaps for another 250 years.

Published originally in Essential Macau, issue 20