For over 250 years, crystal manufacturer Baccarat has upheld a tradition of excellence in glassmaking. First published in the Fall issue of Formes de Luxe, we go behind the scenes of this institution, whose history is intertwined with the French art de vivre.
In the beginning, at Baccarat, there was the mold. Or more precisely, there was the model used to make the mold: a clay, plaster, or resin sculpture. This starting point embodies the spirit that, as Paul Valéry once wrote, “begins and ends in the fingertips”.
In this case, Nathalie Blaise’s fingertips: the only female model maker at Baccarat, which boasts more than 520 artisans—and 13 Meilleurs Ouvriers de France; Blaise has also been named a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In her studio furnace, miracles happen. “We often talk about the glassblowers and glass cutters, but forget the others, such as the mold makers,” she says. “Without this highly precise craft, nothing would be possible. Each piece that leaves the manufactory requires the work of an entire team!”
Faunacrystopolis is a collection of six animals (the monkey, pictured above) designed by Jaime Hayon.
But there are molds, and then there are molds. Those created for the monumental Methusalem decanter designed by Frank Gehry for Hennessy X.O’s 150th anniversary are of a rare breed. This piece— hot-formed in a limited edition of 30 unique pieces, each requiring more than 40 kilograms of crystal— was made using the lost-wax technique. “Each unique mold was shaped with a wax model cast in refractory plaster and then melted out in a steam chamber,” explains Blaise. “To remove the final piece, the mold had to be broken, so we could only use it once.” Why not opt for a conventional mold? “There were too many undercuts!” retorts Blaise. Her mission is to guarantee the perfect feasibility of creations that push the boundaries of feasibility. “It would have been impossible to reproduce the extreme complexity of the glass shape that Gehry designed using a steel mold. Only the so-called ‘waste’ mold method (for the external decorations) combined with blow molding (to form the hollow body), would allow us to obtain this level of precision and so faithfully render the volumes and fine details.”
Creating the mold for the mathusalem designed by Frank Gehry for Hennessy’s XO
A craftsman's respect for materials
Each block of crystal was placed over a mold and spent one week in the furnace. “The crystal liquefies very gradually and eventually melts. Via gravity, it fills the mold and is then left to slowly re-solidify,” explains Blaise. “During the heating and cooling process, any sudden variation in temperature could be disastrous.”
A butterfly-shaped cup inspired by Art Nouveau
In the next phase, in a workshop away from the heat, the master glass cutter Jean-Luc Bourgougnon refined each edge with his cutting wheels to obtain precise angles. Named Meilleur Ouvrier Tailleur de France for his skills, Bourgougnon has worked with Baccarat for 32 years. He trained under Yves Parisse and Serge Vanesson when the two master artisans still officiated at Baccarat. “I was lucky to be surrounded by such experts in the field. As you know, our trades can’t be learned overnight—it takes us at least 10 years to hone our crafts and we never stop learning.” Humble respect for his materials is his credo: “Some wheel-made patterns require up to 40 hours of work and dozens of different wheels,” he marvels. Regarding the Diadème decanter—a vessel featured in Baccarat’s latest Haute Couture collection—Bourgougnon says, “It’s a pure gem that required 38 hours of work per piece—with rosettes, fine diamonds, curved beveled cuts on the sides, flat cuts on the neck, and raindrops.”
Round cuts, olive cuts, pointed diamond cuts. . . Bourgougnon describes what seems like an infinite palette of motifs, listing the treasures that have passed through his hands, vases, goblets, and animal sculptures, stopping now and again on a specific image: Jaime Hayon’s Faunacrystopolis collection—”that was difficult,” he says—and a royal decanter created to mark the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne—“without a doubt the most complex piece I have ever worked on.”
The magic of crystal, light’s material twin, is that whether richly cut or not, it’s always cause for excitement. Take the sculptural case designed by Thierry Lecoule for Versace. Along with some 300 other pieces, it appears in the exhibition Temptation, Artists and Designers x Baccarat at the Galerie-Musée Baccarat in Paris. Michaela Lerch, curator, brand culture and heritage manager at Baccarat comments, “This coffret, produced in a series of 90 numbered pieces, is an ode to perfect form: the perfume bottle rests in a transparent double cube. There’s something natural about this crystal cube, blown in a mold, sculpted, cut, and hollowed out using ultrasound.”
Crystal cubes for Versace, design by Thierry Lecoule
A pair of Uttu vases by Ettore Sottsass produces the same dazzling effect: the architectural crystal body enhanced with pink and olivine rings resembles something between a bottle and a skyscraper. And the limited-edition Rouge 540, a co-creation between Baccarat and Francis Kurkdjian, has a similar effect. “We released this line of perfume for the 250th anniversary of the glassworks as a tribute to Baccarat’s signature gold-infused red—a ruby color obtained by the fusion of powdered 24-caret gold and clear crystal—but most importantly to Georges Chevalier, an iconic figure in our brand history and artistic director until 1970,” notes Lerch. The bottle is undeniably modern and based on designs Chevalier carried out in 1942, “a pyrotechnic display of light. The hand-cut bottle has 160 facets, 64 on the cap alone.” So why is the exhibition called Temptation? “In 1917, Georges Chevalier was the first designer to join Baccarat, and the glassmaker has maintained a dialogue with artists ever since: Salvador Dali, Virgil Abloh, Philippe Starck... Our brand belongs to French heritage, but it draws its strength from a capacity to summon other worlds and mingle different visions. This connection with the arts continues to nurture our artisans’ aesthetic vocabulary.” She smiles: “Cocteau said, ‘to the impossible I am bound.’ At Baccarat, that phrase takes on its full meaning.”