The Glassblowers of Saint-Louis
Words Vilma Paasivaara
Photographs Christopher Sturman
In the tiny French village of Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche, a centuries-old performance takes place every day, as the craftspeople at Saint-Louis crystal work in eight-hour shifts to produce some of the most exquisite glassware in the world. Come and join the dance…
During the day, there is an eerie calm in the village of Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche. There is hardly a car to be seen on the streets and the town seems to still be hibernating in the cold days of early spring. Yet the silence is broken by a forcible humming that emanates from the fenced-off complex of factory buildings; this is the Saint-Louis crystal factory, which has stood at the heart of the village for centuries.
Located in a shallow valley in northern France, close to the German border, the village has effectively sprung up around the crystal and glass production here. As the region’s rich sand and fern reserves lent themselves well to glassmaking, wandering craftsmen had been making glass in the surrounding woods for decades before the factory was ever set up. They would bring their equipment and set up a camp around a makeshift furnace, staying and working for weeks at a time before returning to the villages to sell their product.
‘A forcible humming emanates from the Saint-Louis crystal factory,
which has stood at the heart of the village for centuries’
From these inauspicious beginnings, the glassworks of Münzthal – the predecessor of Saint-Louis – began (they are first mentioned in records from 1586). Though the glass production was interrupted by the 30-Year War, it was revived again in the 18th century – and in 1767, Louis XV of France declared it the ‘Verrerie Royale de Saint-Louis’ – the royal glassworks of Saint-Louis. It was shortly afterwards, in 1781, that the then factory manager, Monsieur Beaufort, discovered the secrets of crystal making – and so Saint-Louis became the first crystal glassworks in continental Europe. Even today, most of the inhabitants of Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche are employed in the crystal factory. As the immense furnaces need to run 24 hours a day and can only be shut down every five years, the glassmakers work continuously, in eight-hour shifts. This explains the quietness of the village – everyone seems to be either at work or sleeping.
As we approach the factory, the humming intensifies, growing louder and more vibrant. Broken shards of crystal can be seen on the ground, offering glimpses of the multitude of colours that are being fabricated inside.
The basic elements of crystal and glassmaking have remained largely the same to this day – and it all still begins with the earth. Fine sand is the main ingredient of both glass and crystal; it is melted at 1,400°C to produce a thick, malleable mixture. Traditionally, the ferns from the surrounding woodlands provided the potassium and sodium necessary to lower the melting point of the crystal – but nowadays these minerals are added in their refined state together with sand and lead – the ingredient that gives crystal the distinctive characteristics that separate it from regular glass. It is this earthy mélange that the skilled craftspeople of this centuries-old factory then shape into the thousands of forms that can be found in the Saint-Louis catalogue.
Many of the craftspeople who work at Saint-Louis today follow a vocation that can be traced back through generations, with both male and female members of the family covering the various roles of glass work – from blowing and cutting to quality control. The apprenticeship period is extremely long: it takes on average 10 years to complete the training, with people typically entering the profession at an early age – often as young as 15 years old.
Though today it is possible to acquire some knowledge through national training programmes, some enter the profession the old-fashioned way, by starting as the lowest-ranking member of the teams of three to eight people that work on the floor in the glassblowing room. Traditionally, only men were allowed to work in the hot room, while women were employed in cutting the crystal, but nowadays women work alongside men as glassblowers at Saint-Louis.
The work of these teams takes place in a great hall – La Grande Place – where all the crystal pieces, from traditional glasses and vases to the thousands of components of a chandelier, are made. In the middle of the hall sits the immense pot furnace, which in turn houses several small furnaces for the different coloured crystals. The most common one – clear crystal – is made in the tank furnace at the back end of the hall, which can produce six tonnes of clear crystal per day. The constantly burning fires – and the bustle of the workers in the hall – lend the scene the impression of a humming, scorching beehive.
The smouldering pits of crystal is where the choreography of the glassblowers begins. A long, heavy iron cane is plunged into the depths of the furnaces to collect a glowing hot bulb of melted crystal – all with a few precise, swirling movements. In smaller teams, the glassblower might gather the crystal themselves, but often this is a separate role carried out by a designated person – usually a beginner. In this case, the crystal is carried through the narrow passageways between the workstations, where, with the help of one or two other workers, the glassblower will begin the work of shaping the material.
Through careful turns of the cane and well-timed blows, the hot mass begins to take form. The tools of crystal making have remained constant – even today there are merely a handful of tools that are used to shape, cut and measure the crystal pieces. This, they say, is part of what gives Saint-Louis crystal its unique quality – the touch of a human hand means there will always be slight variations in every piece made. Not that an untrained eye could ever discern them – but the warmth of the truly handmade is still there.
As the piece begins to take shape, the crystal switches from one pair of expert hands to the next, crisscrossing in indiscernible patterns around the room, reheated in between the vigorous and precise blows to keep it malleable. So fast is the process that, if you look away for a moment, suddenly the arm of a chandelier, a glass or a vase has appeared from what just moments ago was merely a red-hot bulb. Any finer details, such as glass legs, are added on by the master glassmakers – the most experienced members of the teams. Precision in both the glassblowers’ gestures and their timing is key in this complex dance, the choreography of which seems invisible to the onlooker – yet is so well rehearsed it is easy to forget that one false turn could spell disaster.
Indeed, the work of the teams swirling around La Grande Place resembles a meticulously planned ballet enacted by skilled performers, all dressed in blue. The choreography is only interrupted by the punching of tiny tally counters whenever a piece is finished and taken to the annealing lehr (a temperature-controlled kiln) which slowly cools it down to prevent cracking.
Though the work of these individual teams is impressive in its rigour and cadence, it is the manufacture of the larger pieces, such as the domes for the chandeliers, that best shows the level of skill and coordination the glassworkers possess. The cane used to gather the crystal alone is so heavy that it requires several men to manoeuvre it: eight people in total carry the melted crystal between the smaller furnace and the station where the moulding begins. Here the dance turns from a delicate ballet into a brusque waltz, with the group using their whole weight to sway the cane and the smouldering hot crystal. The performance peaks when the crystal is placed into a monumental mould, with the workers climbing onto ladders as well as the mould’s edges to keep the cane turning constantly. All the while one of the team – presumably with the strongest lungs – blows into the cane, his face burning red as his cheeks swell with air.
‘My passion is to keep what we know now, save what we are losing and rediscover what we have lost’
For a mere onlooker it is difficult to separate the movements of the glassmakers, as tiny alterations will result in immense variations in design. It is precisely this knowledge that takes so long to master. It is not something that can be learnt in a classroom – it needs to be acquired through practise, which is why the passing on of techniques is one of the most important aspects of training young apprentices at Saint-Louis. But, despite this commitment, some techniques have inevitably been lost over the centuries.
‘There are pieces in our archive that we no longer know how to make,’ says Erven Maziere, who has worked at Saint-Louis for 22 years. It is part of his role to try to retrieve these old techniques by studying archive pieces and experimenting with different methods. ‘My passion is to keep what we know now, save what we are losing and to try to rediscover what we have lost already,’ he explains.
Beyond the hot room lies the paperweights department. Here the glassworkers make the long thin canes that are first required for the intricate compositions inside the crystal domes. After having fused two colours – one inside and one outside of the cane – teams of two glassworkers will run in opposite directions in the long hallways in order to stretch the crystal into the thinnest of shapes. To avoid anyone accidentally walking into these searing lines of hot crystal, mirrors have been placed on every corner.
Having begun his career in the hot room, Ange Maurer, one of Saint-Louis’ young masters, now works at the end of these narrow corridors. The 28-year-old glassblower spends his days building imaginary landscapes that are still made by hand, just as they were when the production of paperweights began in 1845. ‘I came to Saint-Louis because of the history and heritage that still exists here,’ he says. ‘And of course the knowledge.’ Maurer has been at Saint-Louis for 13 years, following in the family business like many here, learning his craft and perfecting his skills. He is currently preparing a piece for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France award, which is presented to the best craftspeople in the country each year. His exhibition piece will be a large paperweight depicting a tropical forest – with tiny flowers and colourful parrots soaring above the trees. Saint-Louis is already the proud home to numerous Meilleur winners, and Maurer hopes to be the youngest addition to this prestigious line-up. He seems excited by the competition, but also nonplussed about the effect such a win could have on him personally. ‘If I can, I will stay here my whole career,’ he says. Maurer, like all the other glassworkers at Saint-Louis, seems to have a profound respect for his place of work and the heritage it continues.
At the other end of the factory lies the ‘froid’, or cold room. In stark contrast to the dark, blistering heat of the glassblowers room, here all the surfaces are pale – with light pouring in through the large windows. In the early days, the cutting was done in the same space as the blowing, but in 1775 Saint-Louis established the cold workshop to enable more advanced techniques. Today, rows of sanding tools take up huge shelfspaces in between the individual workstations of the cutters. Here the crystal pieces are cut and finished to the exacting standards of the ladies who maintain quality control. Just as with the glassblowers, the apprenticeship for the crystal cutters is long; it takes on average 10 years to become a master cutter.
Each of the cutters works at their station, where water constantly runs in a basin under the whirling cutting wheel. As they cut the complex patterns, they dip the pieces into the water to clear them of dust in order to see the tiniest details and to keep them from overheating. Though guide lines are drawn onto the crystal pieces before cutting, all the work is done by sight. The coordination needs to be absolutely on point, since any mistakes at this phase are often fatal. As crystal is a lot heavier than glass, the craftspeople here need strong hands to handle and cut the bigger pieces. The precision of the gestures, the thorough knowledge of their material, as well as the devotional concentration of the cutters is captivating. There is no time for chatting, no room to break eye contact with the crystal for even a second. Just watching these masters and their apprentices at work makes you want to hold your breath. Showing a commitment to the heritage and quality of Saint-Louis, upholding the traditions and knowledge passed down through generations, this complex ballet is a thing of rare, exquisite beauty.