Friday, October 26, 2007

Keepers of French treasures

Concerning state-owned buildings in which people either work or reside, or both [as in the case of a foreign embassy, for example], the French language draws a top-level distinction between assets of a mobile nature, such as the furniture, and the building itself, associated with the land on which it is located, which are obviously of an immobile nature. The former objects are referred to as mobilier (goods and chattels), whereas the latter are called immobilier (real estate).

On Wednesday evening, I was fascinated by a TV documentary concerning the mobilier national: that's to say, the vast state-owned stocks of splendid furniture and miscellaneous objects that are distributed out to all kinds of official buildings such as the Château de Fontainebleau or the palatial French embassy in Rome. The documentary revealed, above all, the extraordinary amount of skilled restoration work that is being carried out non-stop behind the scenes, by the nation's finest craftsmen and women, in order to maintain all these goods and chattels in a perfect state, capable of representing the prestigious and elegant image of France.

Every outstanding item of furniture is referenced in such a way that a researcher can go along to the National Archives in Paris [just down the street from where I lived for a quarter of a century] in order to obtain a detailed description of the nature and background of the object.

The anecdote that most impressed me involved crockery at the French embassy in a foreign city: Switzerland, if I remember correctly. The lady from the Quai d'Orsay [the famous Parisian address of France's ministry of Foreign Affairs] who's in charge of this aspect of embassy mobilier dragged out all the crockery for a global inspection, and she found that four dinner plates had tiny chips on the edge. The damaged items were wrapped up and taken back to the national porcelain factory at Sèvres, on the western edge of Paris. [Click here to see an English version of their website.] There, an amazing process was set in motion, with the final goal of replacing the four plates. First, the chipped crockery was soaked in an acidic mixture enabling the etched gold to be recuperated. Next, the unique mold of the Swiss embassy plates had to be located in their vast reserves.

A potter then used a traditional wheel to produce four roughly-shaped plates, and his colleagues referred to the mold to attain the exact form and dimensions of the original crockery. An expert then demonstrated his technique for whisking each new plate through a cold bath of enameling liquid. He's maybe one of the only fellows in France with this manual skill, which involves balancing an item of crockery on the tips of three fingers as it swirls through the bath.

The gold-etching technique involves placing a set of mysterious gluey black stencils on the middle and circumference of each plate and then sprinkling gold dust over it. Somewhere along the line, the new plates were baked in an oven. It goes without saying that all the techniques employed at Sèvres are ancient and secret, so the documentary was in no way a do-it-yourself introduction to the manufacture of fine personalized crockery. In any case, by the time the sparkling new hand-crafted plates reached the embassy, the replacement operation had no doubt cost a small fortune: the price of prestige.

Extrapolating from what the TV documentary seemed to say, I'm led to believe that, every time an embassy guest uses a knife on the food in such a plate, an infinitesimal quantity of gold is consumed along with the foodstuffs. I wondered: Would that be the secret of the legendary excellence of French diplomacy? Whenever a foreign diplomat leaves the ambassador's dining table, after an exquisite taste of France, he has a warm glowing feeling in his stomach...

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