Candes Saint-Martin, my favourite spot in La Touraine.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The cradle of crystal Christmas decorations

Getting out the Christmas decorations, I came across this crystal grape. I bought three of these some years ago when visiting the village of Meisenthal in the Vosges region in the north east of France. It was in this village that glass and crystal Christmas decorations were originally developed.

Authentic Meisenthal Christmas decoration.

The story goes that in the old days, people used to decorate their tree with items and objects they found in the woods, the garden and the orchards. Those would include pine apples, apples, moss, mistletoe, colourful stones and even shells. The apples and pine apples were the most popular though.

And then one year, famine struck the country and anything slightly edible ended up in the kitchen. Using apples and pine apples for purely decorative purposes would have been a complete waste of good food.

The people of Meisenthal, who had been making glass objects since the 15th century, decided to put their usual trade to good use to create new Christmas decorations. This gave birth to the glass Christmas balls we see nowadays. At first the glass spheres were transparent white, until the master glass blowers started adding colour and shape to the Christmas balls. Or their wives decorated the original white objects with miniature painted scenes.

Today the old factory is closed and some of the former glass blowers now work as tour guides, explaining the production of crystal, the ingredients and techniques that are used, etc. Knowing their business very well, the tour is very interesting. It kept us captivated for almost two hours. It ends in a museum where some of the factory's most prestigious pieces are on display. Amongst them are many vases and bowls created by the great Art Déco artist Emile Gallé who was attached to the Meisenthal factory from 1867 to 1870. Here he developed his famous ‘pâte de verre’ (glass paste) technique.

However, the last part of the visit is the most surprising. There is the mandatory souvenir shop, of course, but in this case it looks more like a glass display case filled with the most exquisite and delicate glass objects. No kitschy or tacky tourist souvenirs here ... I promise you!

Whilst you’re walking through the semi-darkness of the shop – the only light is in the display cases, making the glass and crystal object sparkle like genuine diamonds – you can feel the temperature in the room going up. The closer you get to the large glass wall in the back of the room, the hotter it gets. A door in the said wall leads unto a landing overlooking a workshop. Here the heat strikes you in the face and cuts your breath as soon as you step onto the landing.

In the workshop below a furnace is burning at full power. In front of it are two young men modelling the burning hot glass paste that sits at the end of a two meter long blowing pole. Every now and then they put it back in the furnace to make sure that the glass remains mouldable. Next they roll in through some coloured powder, before blowing more air through the pole, in order to make the glass expand. Finally they put it in a metal mould and continue blowing until the glass object has reached the required shape and volume. Fascinating!

We stayed for about 10 minutes on the landing watching the young men going about their business. Back in the shop we were hot and flushed ... We learned that the temperature near the furnace was somewhere between 50 and 60° C. No wonder those young men looked so skinny!



Nadege said...

So interesting Martine. I will google it to get more information. (It reminds me of the Murano factory). I have never been to the Northern and Eastern part of France; I am discovering those places through you.

ladybird said...

Nadege, Ahhh Murano, although I've never visited it, it must be quite similar. I'm glad my posts hold some points of interest :))

Btw, have you finished packing yet? Have a super nice trip!! Martine

Jean said...

Murano beads are beautiful, too. I would love to have a go at making my own glass beads.

ladybird said...

Hi Jean,
Wow, making your own beads! Is that even technically possible? Don't you need a small furnace for that? Martine

Jean said...

Martine - apparently you need a small domestic furnace and a whole load of other equipment and tools.
I always thought there is no point in starting a hobby unless you need lots of equipment for it - gearing up is half of the fun !!!

ladybird said...

Jean, Good luck! Looking forward to the result on your other blog 'A box of beads!' Martine