Silver holds an important place in the history of the decorative arts and in the hearts of many collectors. When we think of antique silver, often the first thing that comes to mind is the great Georgian pieces of Paul Storr or Hester Bateman, or perhaps American pieces by Paul Revere or Tiffany & Co. However, French silver objets d'art stand apart from all others for their opulence. These pieces tend to be more elaborate and ornate than English silver, something you will notice and be delighted by in the examples throughout this article.
The extraordinary French silver gilt tea table below was created by the renowned Paris firm of Maison Aucoc and is the culmination of centuries of French silversmiths honing their techniques and artistry. Created for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair during the golden age of international exhibitions, this table stunned. The table, plus a silver tea set to sit atop, were the only objects Maison Aucoc submitted for judging and the combination won the Grand Prize.
It's solid silver design is impeccable. Crafted in the Empire Style, which had enduring popularity in France, it boasts many Neoclassical details including acanthus leaves, palmettos, and three winged women with lion's paws supporting the solid green marble top. The table is crafted with 95% pure silver - the highest standard in the world and extremely rare considering most tables of the period were made from gilt bronze.
The design of this table looks back to the great silver works of the First Empire in France and successfully evokes the opulence and elegance of that era. Let's explore the progression of silversmithing in France that led to the creation of this extraordinary masterpiece.
Decorative objects made of precious metals appear in France as early as the 12th century, although few examples from this period exist, as much of medieval goldsmith's work was destroyed during wars or melted down to re-purpose during hard times or as decorative tastes changed. Most of these objects were religious in nature (reliquaries, chalices, etc.) and commissioned by the church.
French silversmithing truly began to thrive in the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV. The king commissioned extravagant silver objects to adorn his equally extravagant palaces - specifically Versailles. These objects, unlike earlier French silver, were secular and many were utilitarian; items such as tables, serving pieces, and mirrors. Even the Sun King's throne was made of silver and placed at the end of Versailles's famous hall of mirrors lined by large silver candelabras.
Unfortunately, like the Medieval metalwork, few late 17th and early 18th century French pieces remain, this time due to the king himself. Silver is distinct from other decorative art because, unlike porcelain or glass, it has it's own intrinsic value. Silver translates directly into a monetary amount. This meant that silver objects were not only a direct projection of the wealth of the owner, but also that they could be melted down for currency. In December of 1689, France was in the midst of the Nine Years' War, the country was struggling financially, and the treasury was exhausted. Louis XIV issued an edict demanding large silver items to be brought to the mint for melting, including his magnificent throne. Louis XV later issued a similar edict requiring large pieces of silver to be “liquidated” during a fiscal crisis.
By the second half of the 18th century, tastes had shifted to the Neoclassical style, and shifted even further after the French Revolution of 1789. Empire or Napoleonic Style, as it was called, was now in fashion. Named for Emperor Napoleon I, this style was a direct result of Napoleon's invasion of the Papal States and intended to help align his empire with that of Rome. Ancient Roman art was brought back to Paris and served as inspiration for silversmiths there. Some of the most recognizable French silver forms and most notable makers come from this period, such as Henri Auguste and Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot.
Notable French Silversmiths
Robert-Joseph Auguste (1723-1805), who served as royal goldsmith to Louis XV and Louis XVI, is credited with originating the Greek Style or “a la grecque”. As discussed earlier, this return to antiquity was extremely popular at the time and was marked by classical beauty.
Henri Auguste (1759-1816) worked in the Empire style and was the only son of Robert-Joseph Auguste. He carried on his father's legacy after his death and assumed ownership of his shop. He continued to receive patronage from Louis XVI and eventually Napoleon, for whom he created a 425 piece silver service in connection with his coronation.
Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot (1763-1850) was another accomplished Empire style silversmith and a rival of Henri Auguste's. Odiot was incredibly successful in his time and benefited greatly from the patronage of Napoleon's Court (he succeeded Henri Auguste as his official silversmith), as well as the Imperial aristocracy and even foreign nobles and royalty. He was a master at combining the sculptural with the decorative and was influenced, like Auguste, by the Neoclassical style.
The House of Odiot was actually founded by his grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Gaspard Odiot, in 1690 under the reign of Louis XV, but it was J-B-C Odiot that brought the firm triumphant success and notoriety. J-B-C Odiot was eventually succeeded by his son, Charles, who was then succeeded by his son, Gustave. The House of Odiot is still active today and its antique pieces are coveted among museums and collectors alike.
Christofle is another fine silver firm still alive today. Founded in 1830 by Charles Christofle (1805-1863) and his brother-in-law Joseph Albert Bouilhet as a jewelry firm, they did not expand into silversmithing until 1845. They were known for their elegant dinnerware and soon became one of the most successful and technologically advanced silver firms. Christofle was a visionary in terms of the early industrialized manufacturing of goods with silver plating. He created a state-of-the-art plant and employed only the most skilled artisans. They exhibited in many international exhibitions where they received a number of accolades and critical praise. They were also silversmiths to royalty worldwide, including Napoleon III, Sultan Abdulaziz of the Ottoman Empire and Emperor Maximilian of Mexico to name a few.
Another highly-skilled family-owned silversmith workshop was begun in 1820 by Emile Puiforcat. Jean Elysée Puiforcat (1897-1945), son of Emile, was a modern French silversmith best known for his work in the popular Art Deco style marked by precise angles and elegant proportions. Jean had a unique and well-developed personal aesthetic from early on in his career, and brought this to his father's firm after serving in WWI. His artistic vision launched Puiforcat to the forefront of silversmithing in the 20th century. Andy Warhol was even one of his admirers and collected Puiforcat silverware. His works are now held in the premiere decorative arts museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum as well as many important private collections.
Standards & Hallmarks
Throughout history, the metal silver has been used as a measure of currency to be converted into coin, therefore, it has been heavily regulated with systems put in place to oversee the proportion of silver to silver alloys in the creation of both silver plate and coin. The French guild system was very strict to ensure the highest quality in silver products, and the process to become a master silversmith was long and demanding. Typically, those aspiring to be a silversmith would apprentice for eight years then were required to serve as a journeyman for a two to three more years. The final step before earning the title of “master” was to take an exam and submit a piece to be critiqued by the guild.
The guild also created the marking system for all silver objects. In fact, one of the earliest systems of marking silver, although crude, appeared in France in the 13th century. French silver hallmarks are notoriously more intricate, varied and, therefore, more difficult to read than their English counterparts. There were hallmarks for whether an item was domestic, imported, or exported. There were marks that indicated if the item had be assayed, and marks that indicated if an item was from a treaty or non-treaty country. There were even special marks for items intended for exhibition. And the list goes on!
Any collector of fine silver should not overlook French silver. Its extravagant and sumptuous designs set it apart from other silver pieces of the world, and the high standards set for the silversmiths and materials meant that these pieces are still the best of the best. To browse M.S. Rau's collection of French and other antique silver, click here.
Bonneville, Françoise De, Jean E. Puiforcat, and Jacques Boulay. Jean Puiforcat. Paris: Éd. Du Regard, 1986.
"French Silver in the 17th and 18th Centuries." Metmuseum.org. Accessed June 12, 2019. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fsilv/hd_fsilv.htm.
Frégnac, Claude. French Master Goldsmiths and Silversmiths from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century. New York: French & European Publications, 1966.
"The Silver Furniture of Versailles." Partylike1660.com. July 21, 2017. Accessed June 12, 2019. http://partylike1660.com/the-silver-furniture-of-versailles/.
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