The Saint-Louis know-how
If, as Paul Claudel wrote, “glass is solidified breath”, then crystal is a spark of the human soul. Crystal glass was introduced in France by François de Beaufort, director of the Verreries Royales de Saint-Louis in 1781. Like glass, it was a material born of the earth and forest of the Vosges, in a cradle of fire, to which lead was added for weight, sonority, and light. To this fine white sand was added potash – originally plant ash, now chemically produced – as well as minium, or red lead.
And that is still the formula for clear, or colourless crystal. Coloured crystal is obtained by adding metal oxides to this mixture: nickel oxide for purple, cobalt oxide for Saint-Louis blue, copper with gold chloride for ruby red.
Yet these colouring processes, passed down from an ancient alchemy, continue to be the object of probing research in the secret confines of the laboratory, where scientists also try to improve the composition and fusion of crystal glass. But this is the extent of scientific innovation in crystalmaking, for although electricity and gas have replaced wood and coal to fire the furnaces, the work of the craftsmen and -women has remained practically unchanged.
Saint-Louis : a name in human expertise : The village was entirely built and developed around the glassworks. It was a patriarchal village, having subsisted for four centuries on this one, vertically transmitted hereditary role, fulfilled with pride. The current registers of the factory contain names that were inscribed in them two hundred years ago.
But times have changed, and Saint-Louis now employs many glassmakers trained in the vocational schools of Moulins and Sarrebourg. Students begin their apprenticeship at the age of sixteen and undergo a lengthy, demanding training period of six to eight years. At once humble before and passionate about their craft, these artists are divided into two areas of skill: the glassmakers, or glassblowers, and the cutters and engravers. They all begin at the bottom of the ladder and end up as part of an elite, a status earned by merit (many of Saint-Louis’ workers hold the title Meilleur Ouvrier de France, Best French Craftsperson). In their hands, the future of Saint-Louis is fashioned day after day, forging a path between heritage and contemporariness.