Clearing tradition from the table

Times Staff Writer

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.

Hall located his factory on the grounds of a former monastery on the longest river in France because the site was useful for transportation and had sand for the earthenware paste. It was also near the forest of Orleans with wood to feed the kilns. By the end of the 19th century, the factory had taken off, producing 4 million pieces a year and employing more than 2,000 people from around the valley.

Gien became known for fine art pieces but also for churning out low-cost crockery and the rectangular tiles used in the new Metro being built in Paris. But aristocratic patterns were the most coveted. This was, after all, about the time France industrialized and there were new money and new titles floating around, and old families needed class markers to prove their provenance.

"People lived in huge castles, and some of the original orders called for 2,000 pieces for just one family," Dambrine said.

During World War II, American pilots aiming bombs at Gien's historic bridge instead struck the factory. It was rebuilt with more efficient gas-heated ovens, but later owners, the politically powerful De Courcel family, didn't keep investing in new machinery and over the years, the company was flattened by technical upheavals, including an invention almost as shattering as the shelling by the Americans: unbreakable plates.

In 1983, the company declared bankruptcy and the De Courcels sold to an executive from Christofle, maker of fine French flatware. Almost overnight, Gien's workforce was reduced from 1,000 to 140 and half the factory's land was sold off to a supermarket chain, but the company was transformed into a successful luxury business with six collections a year and updated designs.

But in 2001, the new owner died and again one of the best-known French brands was in flux.

This time childhood friends Dambrine and Louis Grandchamp des Raux, who grew up in nearby Sologne, took over, hoping to get Gien into new markets by diversifying with less expensive items such as the paper napkins and those plastic trays. They brought out popular contemporary designs reminiscent of old ones and opened several stores in France and one in Japan but failed to push into places like Williams-Sonoma in the U.S.

"Not enough Americans want to pay $49 for a dinner plate in their country house, not even the Texans," said Dambrine, who runs the daily operations from what originally was founder Hall's 19th century home. "Our core customers, whether they're in Russia or Canada, have a comfortable life, plenty of tradition, but not enough money to be jet set."

Throughout the factory are remarkable examples of made-in-France production combining artistry with machines that, for example, shape clay into 12,000 bowls in a day. But ever-present are workers' hands, most of them women's -- adding decals, bathing plates in glazes, checking for rough edges.

On a recent day in a sunlight-filled room of the factory, one woman was dabbing red paint on the berries of a dessert dish while nearby another finished a teacup with a single brush stroke on the handle. The rest of the design had been machine-imprinted.

Why bother hand-painting one line on hundreds of handles?

"That's what makes Gien, Gien," manager Penzo said. "Elegant details."

Lucinda Duarte has spent 43 years attending to such details. She came to Gien as a young girl from a small town in Portugal when France needed workers in the 1960s. Her Portuguese husband, Antoine, whom she met in the factory, was 12 when he arrived. "We all grew up here," said Duarte, pushing back thick glasses and recalling a paternalistic era when the factory had a hospital, a day-care center and a cannery on the grounds. "It was a good job, a life."

Duarte's specialty became personalizing dinner services for noble families who wanted to fill out an inherited service. Working from an archive with 6,000 original designs etched into copper plates, Duarte used ink and silk paper to transfer old patterns with crowns, curling ribbons, lions and monograms onto new dishware.

"Look here," said Duarte, pointing to an order from a catalog of her work she made for herself: The original etching was made in 1875; the family came to Gien in 1991 for 42 dessert plates, 42 rimmed soup bowls, two round platters, two flat platters, a letter tray and an ashtray.

Watching Duarte proudly displaying her work, Penzo said it was sad that this spring the 61-year-old worker would be retiring: "A large part of the past is leaving with her."

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geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rebecca Ruquist contributed to this report.

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