The Original Limoges Box
Limoges is like champagne - both are associated with the
ultimate in quality, brought out on celebratory occasions when only the
very best will do.
sparkling wines are made in many parts of the world, only those born and
bottled in the Champagne region of France are legally allowed to be called
Champagne. Thus, while porcelain is made in many countries, only porcelain
made in the Limoges region in west-central France may be called Limoges.
A center of
the arts since the Middle Ages, Limoges is the epicenter of the French
porcelain industry. The art - and it is art, not manufacture - of Limoges
boxes remains largely with small studios of five or six craftspeople - very
literally a cottage industry. To keep up with enormous demand, Chamart
works with numerous studios, each with its own specialty.
The French Connection
Chamart is a contraction of the name of its founder, Charles
Martine, one of the "personalities" of the gift and tabletop business. As
the result of the devastation inflicted on France by World War II, there
was little product to import; only Haviland imported French porcelain - and
only its own product. Martine was the first to bring a variety of French
porcelains into the U.S. He created the company in the early 1950's and
moved to 225 Fifth Avenue, where it remains as one of the building's oldest
Martine's line was limited to dinnerware and handpainted ceramics -
predominantly gift items, serving accessories and crystal. Limoges boxes,
for which the company is now world famous, remained in the future. "My
uncle was very conservative," says Leny Davidson, current Chamart
president. "Our box line developed slowly over the past 30 or so years."
Box business was born in 1965 with larger decorative boxes - "coffee table"
pieces. Leny is now attempting to restore boxes from the original
collection, intending to accumulate one of every box in the history of the
company to create a special museum-like display called "Vintage Chamart. "
The Process of Creation
The words "factory" and "manufacturing" seem rather
extravagant to describe the Limoges box "industry." The only true
manufacturing process is that of creating the actual porcelain paste, small
amounts of which are sent to each "factory" to be molded and fired.
many different studios for painting," says Davidson, "because we have such
a wide and varied line, and each studio has its specialty. One painter
might be a master with animals, while another might specialize in flowers."
All production is hand painted. "We use no decals, no stencils - no
shortcut techniques at all," she adds.
world of collectibles, just how "collectible" are Chamart's boxes? Davidson
herself is highly critical of some of the so-called "limited editions" sold
throughout the industry. "Normal production is around 750 to 850 of each
box, and we don't consider them 'limited editions,"' she says. "But I see
items that number in the thousands advertised as 'limited editions.'
Limitless editions would be more accurate!" A true limited edition can only
be made on a piece that ceases to be produced when the edition is
completed. One cannot simply change a color and call a piece limited.
Chamart box, while not strictly limited, is restricted by the
physical limitations of the process itself.
porcelain paste is cast in three dimensional molds painstakingly carved
from plaster of Paris. Usually ten molds are made for each model, and each
mold can produce no more than 75 to 85 pieces before becoming worn so that
the finished piece loses detail.
75 to 85 pieces each - in other words, every Chamart box, except under
exceptional circumstances, is limited to 750 to 850 pieces. A numbering
system indicates the year the model was introduced (first two digits of the
style number indicate the year). Limited editions? Not strictly.
Collectible? Most definitely!
does create genuinely limited pieces, limited because they are made
entirely by hand. "We have a very old, very talented gentleman in France
who makes each of our miniature flowerpots by hand," says Davidson. "Not
only is the model limited , but each piece is different. The handle is
hand-twisted, each flower is made by hand, then inserted by hand. The
maximum for any one such piece is 300."
With more than 2,500 Limoges boxes in the current
collection, it would be far easier to enumerate boxes that Chamart doesn't
make. Every conceivable category seems to be represented - holidays,
hearts, books, animals, cigars (more than 750 of which were sold
immediately on introduction, an indication of how cigars were "smoking"!),
clothing (hats, shoes, shirts), luggage, vehicles, vegetables, fruits etc.
ad infiniturn - all created with astonishing detail, grace and exquisitely
Limoges boxes range up to $425 retail, with the average box selling between
$150 and $210. A lot for something so small and delicate? Not when you pick
one up and examine its incredible detail. Each box is a tribute not only to
the craftsmanship of these remaining Limoges studios - that's obvious - but
as well to their feel for form, their appreciation of the beauty of nature
and - perhaps most of all - their tongue-in-cheek humor and delight in
that most Chamart Limoges boxes are sold in museum shops, fine jewelry
stores and specialty department stores such as Gumps, Nieman Marcus and
Nordstrom's. "We really built our business on the independent store," says
Davidson, which is the more loyal customer. We've still got two clients who
have bought continuously since 1955."
Is that all there is at Chamart?
One might think that making, importing, selling and keeping
track of a line of 2,500 ever-changing items might be more than enough. Yet
Chamart offers a variety of additional products, for instance beaded
flowers. "We've offered handmade beaded flowers for 35 years," says
Davidson, " made of course, in France; but then they stopped making them
there. Beaded flowers are popular again, so for the first time, we've gone
outside of France - we're having them made in Italy!" Another Italian
company now provides Chamart with glass flowers as well - gorgeously
colored, with separate petals mounted on the wires, far more flexible than
the average glass flower (prices range from $21 to $70).
still carries an enormous variety in addition to its boxes: full lines of
bath and boudoir accessories, stationery accessories, dinnerware,
handpainted ceramics and decorative items - all, of course, from France.
But it's the boxes, those tiny fantasies frozen in delicate porcelain, for
which Chamart will be forever known.