Arriving late at night in the tiny village of Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche, in the Lorraine region of France, one drives past tightly shuttered brick houses lining narrow streets. The town is fast asleep—except for the red glow of the Saint-Louis crystal factory, where the kilns are fired 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
With only 650 inhabitants, the village seems like an ancient family compound, which, in effect, it is. Almost everyone here has some kind of connection to the factory; many are from families that have worked there for generations. Saint-Louis opened in 1586 and is the oldest glassworks in the world. In 1767 Louis XV bestowed on it the title Verrerie Royale de Saint-Louis, or royal glassworks, naming it for Louis IX. In 1781, after perfecting the manufacture of lead crystal, the company was given the additional moniker Christallerie by the Royal Academy of Sciences.
In 1989 Hermès bought Saint-Louis, an early jewel in its growing and carefully selected collection of luxury brands. Hermès's former CEO Jean-Louis Dumas had fallen in love with the place after touring the vast, cobwebbed attic, which is filled with hundreds of old glass molds and an example of almost every piece the company has produced over the years. The crystal is spread out on long tables, forming a glittering time line tracing centuries of technological and aesthetic achievement.
"Saint-Louis is among the greatest players of the world in terms of French crystal, yet it is not as well known as, for example, Baccarat," explains David R. McFadden, chief curator of New York's Museum of Arts and Design, who organized the 1989 exhibition "L'Art de Vivre: Decorative Arts & Design in France, 1789-1989," in which Saint-Louis crystal figured prominently. "It has an incredibly distinguished history and the fact that the company is still French-owned makes the pieces more valuable; it adds to the integrity of the item."
In the factory's massive main room, where roaring ovens emit a fantastical light show, the intensity of the workers is palpable. As focused as the figure is in Vermeer's Lacemaker, each artisan performs a wordless choreography of heating, blowing, and shaping molten crystal. Extraordinary too is how the process at Saint-Louis hasn't changed much in more than two centuries. Lead is fused with pure white sand to give the crystal the weight, clarity, and highly refractive quality that distinguishes it from mere glass. The compounds—a closely guarded recipe of sand, potash, and lead oxide—are melted at 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit, becoming a paste ready for the sustained breath of the glassblower, who literally exhales a shape into the glowing and pliable blob.
Using only shears, palettes, and pincers, craftsmen initiate a form that is molded by constant movement, the materials' rapidly changing temperature determining their actions.
"The artisans must be so adept at working with glassblowing tools that the instruments practically become extensions of their bodies," explains Francis Chauveau, the president of Saint-Louis. "The material is not your friend: Molten glass must be respected for the dangerous, volatile substance it is."
Hermès, of course, is famous for honoring age-old artisanal techniques passed on through the generations. That approach is very much what you see in effect at Saint-Louis. Some 15 craftsmen are required to bring to life each of the firm's trademark glasses, vases, bowls, chandeliers, and intricate flowers suspended inside delicate paperweights. "You know the caliber of Saint-Louis's product when you hold a glass in your hand," says New York-based decorator John Barman, who frequently uses the company's stemware in his clients' homes. "It just feels better than other crystal."
Over the years Saint-Louis has made countless technological contributions to the art of crystalmaking. These advances include the 1844 discovery of crystal opaline (crystal colored by the addition of pewter oxide and calcined bone); in the 1880s, the process by which 24-karat gold is applied to finished crystal; and a variety of intricate carving techniques such as acid engraving, which permits extremely refined decorations. These innovations allowed Saint-Louis to create everything from faceted flute-shaped stemware with interior bubbles to highly personalized pieces for individual clients.
In 1845 Saint-Louis developed filigree openwork—a decorative design technique that produces delicate perforations—employed most notably in the making of millefiori paperweights, which were collected by the likes of Empress Eugenie, Napoléon III, Queen Victoria, and Oscar Wilde. Filigree allows for a layering of patterns within the surface of the crystal, creating the impression of delicate twined strands of lace or ribbon.
Vivid color, which has always been a specialty here, is utilized either as a solid tone or in complex techniques that layer one over another. Each of the ten hues, such as the deep violet that echoes the rich tones of Bohemian glass and the newest, a beautiful soft gray dubbed Flannel, is made by mixing variations of metal oxide. Saint-Louis also introduced the method of using white enamel as an overlay to create the look of alabaster, chrysoprase, and aventurine.
These bold hues are what attracted New York decorator Miles Redd to the crystal. He installed a pair of early-20th-century Saint-Louis sconces in a ladies' powder room. "I was really drawn to the color palette of the sconces: gorgeous amethyst with rock-crystal drops. I love the craftsmanship and delicacy of Saint-Louis pieces," Redd says. "Crystal sconces often look overdone or droopy, but these had incredible sparkle and, at the same time, restraint in the design so they didn't appear overly precious."
Just as the presence of the factory in this thimble-size village takes you back in time, so does the dining room of La Maison de Titulaire, the 19th-century mansion built for the families of those running Saint-Louis. The table is always set with different combinations of the company's crystal, transforming it and the crisp linens into a still life of brilliant color. The jewel-tone world glows in timeless elegance. Saint-Louis's master artisans fill the air with a sense of pride and purpose that is as rare and precious today as the crystal they produce.
Saint-Louis crystal is available at its factory and at selected Hermès boutiques throughout the world (800-238-5522).