Christofle: A legend revisited

 

by Sibel DORSAN

 

 

 

The Athens of the 1980s, the Istanbul of the 1900s, the Paris of Napoleon III, the Lyon of 1805… just some of the scenes from the unending Christofle tableware show which awaited our unsuspecting correspondent as she stepped out for a little window-shopping in the Ankara of 2006.

 

 

Looking through the sparkling plate glass of the Christofle showroom at the foot of Cinnah Caddesi, Ankara, a few days ago, brought back a personal memory from the year 1985. At that time, we used to live in Athens, and I was once invited to 5 o’clock tea by our neighbours, who were originally from Istanbul. A set of Christofle flatware caught my attention as the tea was being served. I suppose we must have talked about this set, as I remember my kind hosts, who were both well into their 70s, recalling how one of their mothers had bought it at a Christofle store in Istanbul when she was young, and later given it to them as a wedding present. This account meant that there was a Christofle store in Istanbul at the beginning of the 20th century.

 

Suddenly, I was seized by the urge to find out the truth about the history of Christofle in Turkey. I walked into the store. The store manager, Sultan Ongun, gave me contact details for the Istanbul branch, which in turn led me to Zeynep Madra and Stella Kant, the owners of “Christofle Türkiye”. Based on their help and our conversations, I was soon able to reveal that the Christofle brand, a symbol of luxury and elegance for centuries, is not completely unfamiliar to Turkish society.

           

Fournisseur of sultans

 

Even as early as the 1860s, Christofle had ten stores in the Ottoman Empire. The ruler who introduced this renowned brand of the fine art of dining to Turkey was Sultan Abdulaziz. In the While visiting Toulon in 1855, the Sultan travelled on to Paris to visit the First International Paris Fair where he ordered wedding presents for his daughter from Christofle. Experts today list a number of silver items with the Sultan’s imperial emblem engraved on them, as well as a 75 kg chandelier, a table embellished with silver and gold, and a washbowl decorated with a pattern depicting the Arabian Nights - all ordered by Abdülaziz and created by Christofle, already the Sultan’s fournisseur before that date - among the most invaluable pieces of antiques available in the world today.

 

Apparently, the sultan’s successors continued the tradition. Ballot-boxes similar to those of the French Parliament, and bearing the signature of Christofle, were ordered upon the request of the sultan for Turkey’s first elections during its first attempt at constitutional monarchy. Other establishments in the country were by this time catching up with the Christofle tradition. The Markiz pastry shop, the hotel Pera Palas and the famous train L’Orient Express all had Christofle tableware and furnishings between the years 1860 and 1940.

 

In the1900s, Christofle’s permanent missions to the Ottoman Empire consisted of two stores, the Au Gant Rouge in Beirut and Decugis in Istanbul. Today, Christofle’s elegant products are to be seen in the company’s outlets in the Niþantaþý district of Istanbul, the Ak Merkez shopping mall in the same city, and – as you now know - on Cinnah Caddesi in Ankara.

 

Marriage of gold and silk

 

The history of Christofle in Turkey is naturally but one intriguing branch of the 173-year tale of the establishment of this unique family company. Charles Christofle, whom the company was named after, was born in Lyon in 1805, the son of a silk merchant. After being schooled in Paris, Charles Christofle started working with his in-laws, the Calmettes, in their jewellery workshop. He later spent time working in the jewellery and ‘orfévre’ (silversmith) workshop of the Bouilhets in Marais, again a brother-in-law from the marriage of Charles’ second sister. Charles was promoted to chair the company management in 1830 and made a name in this period as the jeweller of King Louis-Philippe and the Orleans family. During the time of Emperor Napoleon III, Charles Christofle earned the title ‘Fournisseur de l’Etat’. Christofle’s creations decorated such places as the Elysée Palace, the Tuileries Palace and the Chateaux Compiègne and Saint-Cloud. Charles Christofle, the country’s first official exporter, was also the first person to stamp a poinçon (the company signature) on his products. In this way, the company built confidence in its clients, always taking responsibility for the quality of its products, and demonstrating his loyalty to one of the company’s foremost principles: “une seule qualité: la meilleure” (only one quality: the best).

 

To begin with, Christofle served only the aristocracy. In 1840, he purchased electrolytic gilding (‘La dorure et l’argenture par electrolyse’) patents from Comte Henri de Ruolz. The patents allowed production of gold and silver plated tableware, which had the same elegant appearance at a much lower cost. This enabled Christofle to extend its base of customers to include more people at a time which coincided with the emergence of a new bourgeois class which in the 1820s had developed a “dining room” tradition of its own. The company changed its direction to better meet the needs of the “dining room” of the new bourgeoisie, as well as those of the aristocracy.

 

In addition to the electrolytic technique, a new moulding technique called galvanoplastie, discovered by German chemist and architect Jacobi in 1838 and perfected by Christofle in 1854, made it possible to make an exact metallic replica of any object, regardless of what it was made of. The new technique facilitated the creation of monuments and mass production, industrializing the production to some extent, and broadening the company’s customer base to include an even larger range of consumers.

 

Hitting the high street

 

The establishment of the Rue de Bondy plants in 1844 brought the company an industry award from Napoleon III in 1845. The company opened its first store in 1856 at 33, Boulevard des Ýtaliens. Since the opening of this first store, Christofle has opened showrooms in 5 continents across the world.

 

After the death of Charles Christofle in 1863, Henri Bouilhet took over the business. Using the galvanoplastie technique, the company created the 4,500 kg monument to Our Lady in Marseille, 9.70m high. In 1874, the Christofle Company plated the roof of the famous opera house in Paris and created most of the statues in the building upon the request of the renowned architect Garnier.

 

Christofle equipped the Ritz in 1898 and the Normandy transatlantic steamship in 1935. In 1970, upon the personal request  of Charles de Gaulle, it supplied all the silverware for France’s presidential jet. Meanwhile, the company participated in all of the world’s major arts and decoration fairs including ground-breaking international fairs in Paris, London, Vienna and Chicago. Many Christofle creations, all considered to be objects of fine art, are now on show in decorative arts museums across the world: Paris, London, Berlin, New York, Saint-Petersburg...

 

New generation

 

Managed by four generations of the Bouilhet, the Christofle company is now chaired by Maurizio Borletti, of the family’s Italian wing. But in principle nothing has changed since those very early days. The company continues to create for its clients a wide variety of products from gold and silver tableware and dining table accessories to decorative pieces of silver, crystal and porcelain. For those who want something even more special, the company has developed the first Haute Orfevrerie collection, the synonym for Haute-Couture in the dictionary of silverware.

 

The story of Christofle’s achievements continues to unfold. It is nice to be a part of it.

 

 

( DIPLOMAT  -  June 2006  -  Ankara )