As someone who writes about jewellery, I’m no stranger to sparkle. Nevertheless, I wasn’t quite prepared for the dazzle on display during a recent trip to the home of French crystal brand Baccarat.
It has been almost 250 years since Louis XV gave Prince Bishop Cardinal Louis-Joseph de Laval-Montmorency permission to found a glassworks in the eastern French town of Baccarat. Since then, the brand’s stemware and chandeliers have graced the palaces of 19th-century maharajahs and tsars, while its art-deco-era perfume bottles for Boucheron, Cartier, Dior and Guerlain are sought-after collectors’ items. Collaborations with the likes of Philippe Starck, Kenzo Takada and Marcel Wanders have ensured that the firm keeps pace with contemporary design aesthetics.
Aside from a few one-offs by Georges Chevalier in the 1930s, however, it was not until 1992 that Baccarat began to produce jewellery collections, albeit sporadically. The past few years have seen projects with fine jeweller Aude Lechère and Lanvin jewellery supremo Elie Top, among others.
In November 2011, the company appointed Dominique Delale as vice president of jewellery and accessories. Under her guidance Baccarat is evolving its jewellery offering, and I have come for a sneak preview.
The first stop on my trip is the Paris-based Maison Baccarat. This former home of infamous socialite Marie-Laure de Noailles was given a Starck makeover in 2003 and is now a glittering palace filled with cut-crystal objets and gilded surfaces. It’s here that I meet the chic, and rather sweet, Delale.
She talks me through the designs for the new spring/summer 2013 collection, B-Mania – which will launch at BaselWorld in late April and be in stores from May. It is a stylish riff on the iconic Harcout crystal cut first conceived by Baccarat in 1841. Most striking are the midnight-blue floral ring and pendant in silver and “mordore” crystal (first picture), a large geometric silver cuff and ring with tactile curves (second picture) and a long silver necklace with colourful crystal and silver charm pendants – a fun piece that lets the owner create her own combination of jewels to tell a personal story. A second range, Kaleidoscopic, which is for men, will also launch in 2013.
It’s a scenic three-hour train journey from Paris to Baccarat, which is like stepping back in time. A château – my home for the night – overlooks a tree-lined square surrounded by the bijoux grace-and-favour homes of glassworkers and their families, many of whom have worked for the company for generations. At the opposite end of the square, facing the château, the factory stands tall.
Our night visit there is a visceral experience – hot and loud. It’s the domain of master glassblowers (third picture), cutters and engravers and their apprentices, who use rudimentary tools such as wooden paddles, shears and tweezers to craft elaborate works of art from molten blobs of glass heated to temperatures in excess of 1,400°C. Keen to avoid a stint in the local A&E, I pass up the opportunity to give glassblowing a go, and turn my attention instead to the unprepossessing mixtures of coloured oxides that, under extreme heat, yield a palette of sky blue, pink, green, cobalt, amethyst, amber and onyx crystal. The whole process is mesmerising, a little scary and really quite magical: the vitreous equivalent of alchemy.
It’s here that we see prototypes of the forthcoming B-Mania collection being tested – and retested. No scratch, crack or bubble escapes the eagle eyes of the glass checkers. In fact, such is the emphasis on quality control that until the mid 20th century a checker had to declare any form of romantic involvement with a craftsman. As I handle the dainty crystal elements that form the centrepiece of Baccarat’s foray into an exciting new arena, I eagerly look forward to seeing the finished pieces next year.