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Clearing tradition from the table

A French factory that supplied aristocrats with the finest dishes now stamps its patterns on plastic trays.

May 01, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

GIEN, FRANCE — For generations, the French upper classes made leisurely weekend lunches in the gardens of their country homes a hallmark of the "art of living well." On languid afternoons, they arrayed long outdoor tables with platters and tart molds imprinted with family monograms and crests; dessert arrived on trays splashed with vivid portraits of animals, and coffee came in pots decorated with fruits and flowers.

And for the best families, only the glazed earthenware made in a factory in this town on the banks of the Loire River would do. The crockery, known as faience, was as much a discreet symbol of prestige and good taste in an aristocratic family as having "de" before a last name or a signet ring with the family crest passed down to a son when he turned 18.

But for the last few decades, the faience of Gien has also become a symbol of a lifestyle that is a vanishing art. Modern life just doesn't call for a dinner service that comes with 14 matching platters and covered tureens for soup, vegetables and sauces.

France still has more secondary homes than any other country in Europe, and by enforcing labor laws and federally mandated holidays, the French state makes sure people still have plenty of time to spend in the countryside. But while the grandes familles with their grandes maisons still have their land and titles, their wealth has been dwindling, and businesses they supported, from live-in tutors to handmade wallpaper, are diminished.

Sandrine Penzo, a 38-year-old manager at the Gien factory, recalls a recent Sunday lunch at a friend's country home where instead of laying out the meat on platters and vegetables in bowls, the hosts served each guest the entire meal on a single plate -- and a forgettable one at that.

"In the past, families not only had a special place to keep dishes but also people in the kitchen taking care of them," she said. "Now few have such luxuries."

Established in 1821, the factory here has managed to survive the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, floods, fires and a series of owners, including a politician in Paris who ran it into bankruptcy.

Now new owners are trying to reinvent Gien for a generation that is willing to jettison the family china for something trendy and thinks nothing of pushing grandma's old pattern to the back of the sideboard to make room for 6-euro (about $9.35) plates from IKEA.

Gien has always tried to win markets outside France but is now exporting the French "art of receiving guests well" by selling half its wares abroad in 30 countries. The company also now sells candles and stamps its most iconic patterns such as "Birds of Paradise" on trays made of plastic. The most successful designer these days for Gien, supplier of crockery to kings, also works for Target.

Bertrand Dambrine, the owner since 2002, says that to keep the faience of Gien on the best tables, he and his partner have enlarged their product line with less expensive but high-profit accessories such as oven-to-table baking dishes and paper napkins to bring people to their tableware. Soon they hope to acquire new companies to sell stemware and tablecloths along with their famous dishes.

"The growth of our business, our future, is not in those old families anymore," Dambrine said. "We can't rely on selling a whole dinner service but more on giftware. The problem is, when you go for a weekend you can bring chocolate flowers or tea or anything else. Everybody is a competitor. It's a difficult new business."

The history of this venerable brand illustrates many ironies of the way France and the world have changed.

Almost 200 years ago when the factory opened its doors, China was known for authentic luxury products and Europe for the best fakes. In fact, the traditions, influences and craftsmen involved in faience of Gien, one of the better-known brands in a country that prides itself on cultural purity, are not exclusively French -- but rather Dutch, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and, above all, English.

Gien was launched by an Englishman named Thomas Hall at the height of the passion among the French aristocracy for all things British. (Ever since the British granted asylum to fleeing French nobles during the 1790s Terror, Anglomania has flourished here with tea at 5, duffel coats with toggles and the use of words like "cake" that never get translated into French.)

The ultimate luxury item was expensive porcelain from China that European "counterfeiters" such as Hall made more affordable by producing similar patterns in faience, a product that is more porous than porcelain and thus allows more vibrant colors in warm hues like Delft blue.

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