The years drop away as you drive into Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche. Block out the pavement and the Peugeots and it could be 1621. Or 1857. Or 1932. Things don’t change much in this village of some 600 people in eastern France, so close to the German border that ja is as common as oui. Your passage is marked by, on the right, a stoic cobblestone wall. On the left are squat row homes that have seen multiple generations pass through their narrow front doors. And all around you, trees—reed-thin beeches and bushy oaks and, rising above them all, thick firs—that are part of the 8,000-acre forest that sustains the Saint-Louis Cristallerie, France’s original crystal workshop.
“We are in the middle of nowhere, to be honest,” Jérôme de Lavergnolle, the company’s CEO, says. “Why are we here, in fact? This is the main question we get.”
As in a fairy tale, the answer lies in the forest. In 1586, when the workshop was built, furnaces required a massive, steady supply of wood to generate the Hades-like temperatures that melt sand into glass. So savvy glassmakers built their factories near forests in the most remote corners of the country. If you search online for the locations of venerable French glassmakers—Lalique, Meisenthal, Baccarat—you’ll find yourself not in cities, but in plots of Google Map green.
But trees were only the first ingredient. Water was—and is—equally crucial to glassmaking. At Saint-Louis, water was piped in from surrounding streams to cool the pieces as glass cutters made the intricate incisions for which the company became known. The workshop also drew sand, an ultrafine white grit that’s nothing like beach sand, from the forest floor. And it sourced potash, a substance that helps sand melt at a lower temperature, from the forest’s ferns. Today, the furnaces are powered by natural gas and the potash is created in a lab, but Saint-Louis still sources much of its sand and water from the surrounding forest.
For years, the workshop made plain glass in relative anonymity. Then in 1767, King Louis XV, impressed with the quality of the glass, bestowed letters of nobility on the company that allowed it to use the royal moniker: Saint-Louis. Fourteen years later, in 1781, Saint-Louis introduced lead, the crucial ingredient in crystal, and became the first company in continental Europe to perfect the crystal-making process. Soon, it began to produce multitiered chandeliers that sparkled above the heads of French nobility, and jewel-toned crystal glasses that were raised to the lips of kings. The growing company built a new workshop crowned with a roof designed, it’s believed, by Gustave Eiffel. Eiffel’s red roof and the iron tools used in the manufactory below have changed very little since then—not even when Hermès acquired the brand in 1989.
To make everyday glass, sand is mixed with potash and melted in a 3,632°F oven. (That’s more than one-third the temperature of the sun!) The addition of lead gives crystal its heft, sonority, and refraction, a fancy way of saying it sparkles in a way your water glass never will. If you’ve ever run your finger around the rim of a glass and heard it sing, you were holding crystal. If you’ve ever held a glass up to the light and seen a rainbow, you were holding crystal.
While it’s possible to grasp the basics of glassmaking on paper, it’s much more fun to actually see a glass born from a ball of fire.
“It’s primeval,” says Anne Lhomme, Saint-Louis’s creative director. “My first visit to the manufactory, I thought I had gone back to the past—like the movie Back to the Future, but further back, to two centuries ago.”
Two hundred craftsmen work and live in this time warp. Many of them were handpicked from the best schools in France, and several employees even represent the seventh generation of their families to work in the cristallerie.
“You don’t learn the métier in the schools,” de Lavergnolle says. “It’s really a neurological transmission and a visual transmission. You need to watch and repeat, day after day, the same gestures. To be really good at your job, you need at least 10 years.”
On a guided tour of Saint-Louis, you’ll visit the two main parts of the nearly 540,000-square-foot manufactory: the hot workshop, which lives up to its name, and the cold workshop, which is more room temperature than arctic.
“The hot workshop is very intense,” Anne says. “It’s crowded, it’s hot. To work in this environment, you need to be passionate about what you’re doing.”
As you watch, a glassblower might blow a parison, or bubble, that will later become the bowl of a wineglass, or roll glowing crystal on a marver (steel bench) to form the dome of one of the company’s prized paperweights.
For de Lavergnolle, the process never fails to amaze. “Seeing a glassblower take the pipe, turn it in the furnace like spaghetti to gather the molten crystal, and then blow it in front of you is a magical experience,” he says. “From this fireball something new appears—a vase, a glass, a candleholder.”
In the cold workshop, glass cutters wearing navy blue coveralls stitched with the Saint-Louis insignia may hold a vase up to a spinning metal wheel to make deep, precise incisions that will mark it as part of the Deauville collection, or paint the lip of a Red Roemer wineglass (part of the Thistle collection) with 24-carat gold.
Before that glass leaves the workshop, it will have been handled by 28 different people over the course of 25 days. If approved by the quality control team, the glass will be stamped with the Saint-Louis logo and then shipped to a customer who ordered online, or to an Hermès boutique, or to one of the company’s 25 (and growing) stores around the world.
All tours begin at the company’s museum, La Grand Place. Built over a raw stone pit that once contained a massive furnace, the museum cradles 2,000 pieces of crystal history, arranged chronologically and thematically, capped with a 120-light chandelier that is very grand indeed. What makes many visitors giddy, however, is the shop, where you can buy Saint-Louis products like the ones you just watched come to life, at up to a 50 percent discount (and yes, they ship).
Despite the company’s reverence for the past, it isn’t trapped in glass. “There is no future without the past,” Lhomme says. “But I’m always pushing to try new things. We can have a very old manufactory and have tools that are not very modern, but it’s very, very important to always try to do something new with them.”
Take Saint-Louis’s new Folia line. Designed by Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance, Folia is a collection of sleek crystalware, lighting, and—in an entirely new move for the compan—a few pieces of ash-wood furniture with built-in lights. It’s all very modern, down to the Dwell-meets-Midsummer-Night’s-Dream pop-up showroom the company held in Paris to celebrate the launch. Duchaufour-Lawrance’s inspiration for the line? The forest, evoked in the delicate leaflike designs on every piece.
As the world hurries forward, Saint-Louis maintains a steady heat. Maybe the company will introduce virtual reality headsets into its stores—one of its current ideas about how to bring the atmosphere of the workshop to you. Maybe it will partner with a Champagne company to create a crystal cooler inspired by the next James Bond film, as it did with Bollinger in 2015 when Spectre debuted. But the furnaces, forest, and savoir-faire that fire the brand will remain unchanged.
“Saint-Louis is more than a product,” Lhomme says. “We never forget that behind the glass, there is a man, a furnace, a village, and a forest.”
How to Visit the Saint-Louis Workshop
Take a train from Paris to Metz, a one-hour ride, and rent a car in Metz (usually about $50 per day). The workshop is 90 minutes from Metz by car. Or rent a car in Paris and drive the four hours east. Saint-Louis is open Monday–Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ninety-minute tours of the workshop are offered at 9:30 a.m., Monday through Friday. Saint-Louis also offers guided tours of the village. Museum visit $6.50, workshop tour $16, village tour $11. saint-louis.com