Silver products of France of the 17th-18th centuries have survived to this day in very small quantities. The making of decorative and applied products from silver was considered an elite art and required many years of training from the master. The guilds set high demands on both the jewelers and the quality of the precious metal.
Until the Great French Revolution, a complex system of hallmarks was used in the country, by which it was possible to determine the city of origin, guild, purity, and also to make sure that the tax on the product was paid. Pure silver was not commonly used due to its softness. Jewelers added a small amount of copper to the alloy to give the piece the necessary strength.
Silver products of France. Silver furniture “king-sun”
The era of Louis XIV was the heyday of jewelry making in France. Silver items served as a sign of wealth and high status in society. At the same time, the great value of the precious metal led to the fact that very few silver items survived – they were melted down to please the changing fashion and confiscated in favor of the state.
The most famous creations of the masters of the reign of the “sun king” were silver pieces of furniture and interior design. The interior decoration of Versailles was supposed to make the same stunning impression as the exterior, so Louis ordered to make the furniture, which would consist entirely of precious metal.
The order was placed at Charles Le Brun’s Tapestry Manufactory in 1664. Experienced silversmith Claude Ballin worked on the items, and the work lasted 18 years. A total of 164 decorative items were made, including tables, mirrors, benches, stools, dressers, vases and statues.
The total weight of the ordered batch exceeded 20 tons. A special Versailles mark was applied to the master’s products. The central part of the collection was occupied by a royal throne 2.6 meters high and a balustrade weighing more than a ton, which separated the monarch’s bed from the prying eyes of visitors to the bedroom. Louis was happy to demonstrate luxury – written evidence of the visit to France of the Doge of Genoa, whom the king ordered to organize a tour of Versailles, was preserved.
A short life was allotted to the shiny interior. In December 1689, in connection with the outbreak of the Second Hundred Years War, all the splendor was sent to the mint and melted down. The treasury was exhausted by the king’s exorbitant spending, and Louis even issued an edict to confiscate silver from the nobility. A glimpse of the Versailles setting is provided by the Arte film Furniture of Versailles, where impressive interiors are modeled on the computer.
The surviving examples of 17th century silverware are represented by fork and spoon sets known as the covert. Making table knives began only at the end of the century. Covers dating from 1684 can be seen in the windows of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The fashion for tea and coffee, which spread during the time of Louis XIV, led to the appearance of silver teapots and coffee pots. From the surviving samples, one can see the evolution of the design of tableware – the strict lines, beloved by the “sun king”, were replaced by the daring and intricate Rococo style, which was preferred by his heir.
Over the course of two centuries, the dining habits of the French have undergone significant changes. In the 18th century, the fashion for sets of tureens and decorative plates spread throughout the country. French custom was taken up by other countries, and a style of dining called service à la française became the standard throughout Europe. One of the most sophisticated tureens was made for the Duke de Penthièvre and is distinguished by a sculptural composition on the lid in the form of a hunting scene.
Silver chandeliers were a popular decoration of the table at that time. Usually they were made in sets of 8-10 pieces. Several works by Robert Joseph Auguste, a French jeweler who worked during the last few decades of the 18th century, have survived. The then popular neoclassical style was distinguished by refined and restrained elegance.
Silver products of France of the 17th-18th centuries are a great rarity at antique auctions, since most of the items made of precious metals were melted down during the Great French Revolution.