" A TOUT LES GLOIRES de la France !" reads the inscription on the equestrian statue of Louis XIV in front of the Palace of Versailles. During his reign, Emperor Napoleon III did his best to restore that Revolution-tarnished gloire . The most magnificent gesture was his commission for the Paris Opera, begun in 1861 and still the definitive bombastic, grandiloquent, exuberant public building. The Opera's crowning glory: the 26-foot high bronze statues atop the facade, cast by Christofle, the metal-smith firm that has been run by family descendants since 1830.
In 1850, the firm's eponymous founder, Charles Christofle, foresaw the Second Empire's big, untapped market for luxury goods--except that the nouveau riche , bourgeois aristocracy couldn't afford the extravagance of the pre-guillotine nobility. So, reflecting that gold- and silver-gilt was no longer appropriate for the 1850s, Christofle purchased the rights to a new process for electrically plating silverware. The product was soon endorsed by none other than His Highness, who had been shocked to find, on ascending the throne, that there was no royal silver service. He was again shocked to find that a traditional solid-silver service would cost some 5 million francs--so he promptly opted for an equivalent spread of Christofle silver-plate for just 5,000 francs. Speaking from experience, the Emperor rationalized: "Heirloom silver is only good for melting down when the need arises."