HISTORY OF CHRISTOFLE
"ONE QUALITY, THE BEST."
Christofle commands respect worldwide for its luxury table service products, including the company’s traditional silverware lines and extending to include nearly all items found on and around the well-to-do dining table, including porcelain dishes and linen napkins and tablecloths. Christofle has always been known for its innovative designs and its willingness to commission new designs from noted artists and designers. After producing a line of table service designed by Christian Lacroix in the late 1990s, Christofle has turned to Christian Dior for a new series of designs beginning in 2001.
The Christofle family began their manufacturing career as makers of sequins and jewelry components at the end of the 18th century. The family soon extended their production to include such diverse products as mother-of-pearl and gold buttons, silver-threaded cloth, epaulettes for French army officers' uniforms, as well as jewelry. The Christofle name was already associated with a certain degree of innovation, as the family was awarded a number of patents during the early years of the 19th century. Among the family's businesses was a jewelry workshop located in Paris's Marais quarter.
The start of Christofle's worldwide fame came in 1830, when Charles Christofle, then 25, took over as head of the Marais enterprise. Charles Christofle was backed by his elder sister Rosine, who had married Joseph Bouilhet, a wealthy French notable. With the far older Bouilhet's wealth, Christofle began to expand his company. From the start, Christofle looked toward the international arena. Among the company's commissions were the crown for Queen Ranavallo of Madagascar and a series of ceremonial swords produced for customers throughout Latin America. By the end of his first decade as head of the family firm, Christofle had driven sales to more than French Francs 2 million.
The company continued to manufacture its traditional range of products. The death of Joseph Bouilhet in 1837 left his widow Rosine Christofle-Bouilhet in charge of the family's fortunes. Charles Christofle himself became part of that fortune when his older sister persuaded her daughter to marry her much older uncle. Rosine Bouilhet's other child, Henri, just seven years old at the time of his father's death, was to play a still more central role in the development of the family empire.
In the 1840s Charles Christofle led the family business into a new direction that was to establish the company's name worldwide. In 1842, Christofle acquired the exclusive rights to exploit a series of patents held by Count Henri de Ruolz and British goldsmiths Georges and Richard Elkington. The patents detailed a method of silver- and gold-plating using electrolysis--a radical departure from traditional silver- and gold-plating methods, which used mercury and were both time-consuming and highly toxic.
By 1845, Christofle had opened a manufacturing facility dedicated to the new plating techniques, placing the whole of the family business's future on the success or failure of this new endeavor. Christofle's factory marked one of the first uses of electricity as a production tool. Christofle's technique enabled the plating of a wider variety of objects than ever before, and permitted the application of plating to more common--and less expensive--metals. At the beginning, however, Christofle preferred to establish a reputation for high-quality, limiting his activities to plating works created by other gold and silversmiths.
Yet Christofle found few customers for his plating techniques. Indeed, the company was quickly confronted by a growing number of counterfeit products. Backed by the Bouilhet fortune, Christofle successfully defended his exclusive patent rights before the French tribunals. Christofle also began adding a trademark to his products, a guarantee to his customers of the quality of the silver used for his plated objects. Christofle had already established the company's silver plating to a far higher percentage--92.5 percent--of silver than his competitors. Meanwhile, unable to find commissions for his plating technique, Christofle decided to launch the family into the production of its own line of products.
In 1846, Christofle extended his factory's production to include a variety of objects, especially related to table service. In this, Christofle seemed to have captured the spirit of the times, as a rising class of French bourgeoisie began to aspire to similar luxuries as the country's fading nobility. The so-called 'arts de la table' suddenly became part of the required dining room furnishings. Christofle offered the new middle-class silverware and table service with the same commitment to quality but far less expensive than traditionally crafted silver items. Before long, the Christofle name became something of a generic name for silver-plate.
The company received a strong boost when Christofle became the official provider of table service for King Louis-Philippe and the entire House of Orléans. In 1850, the company received a new and important benefactor when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte commissioned Christofle to produce a table service for the Palais de l'Elysée. Christofle's relationship with Bonaparte continued after the later became known as Emperor Napoleon III. Christofle's official titles of 'Goldsmith to the King' and the 'Emperor's Provider' provided the company with the foundation with which to achieve a new international expansion. Founding a factory in Karlruhe, Germany, the company began providing such foreign dignitaries as the Kaiser of Germany and the royal households of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Tsar of Russia.
Christofle also proved to have a strong commercial sense. Hiring a dedicated sales staff, Christofle arranged a number of contracts with retailers worldwide. In exchange for giving a merchant the exclusive right to sell Christofle's products in a particular town, Christofle claimed space in the merchant's street-side shop windows--while the retailer agreed to carry only Christofle's line of table service in his shop. At this time, Christofle also established the Pavillon Christofle retail store in Paris.
Charles Christofle was joined by nephew/brother-in-law Henri Bouilhet in 1852. The new generation--Henri Bouilhet took over the business when Christofle died in 1863--expanded the company's business and firmly established the business's industrial approach to luxury goods, a departure from the traditional artisan-based industry of the time. Bouilhet was not only a shrewd businessman, but an astute engineer; working with Hermann von Jacobi, of Saint Petersburg, he invented a new method of plating not only silver and gold, but bronze, copper, and other metals as well. The new method, called galvanizing, permitted Christofle to begin producing more monumental works. Among the company's most notable productions were the gold-plated bronze winged statues at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, the railroad car for Pope Pius IX, and a ten-meter tall statue for the Notre Dame de la Garde church of Marseilles.
The period leading up to World War I represented something of a peak for the Christofle name. The collapse of a great deal of Europe's royalty after the war and the Soviet revolution saw the company lose a large portion of its business. Seeking capital, the company listed on the Paris stock exchange in 1926. Yet the company was soon after hit hard by the Depression, which helped to wipe out much of its remaining customer base. Regrouped under Tony Bouilhet, Henri Bouilhet's grandson, the company shut down its German factory and other foreign operations and transferred all of its manufacturing operations to its Saint Denis, Paris factory.
One of the more fortuitous decisions made by Tony Bouilhet was his marriage to Carla Borletti, a member of a wealthy Milan-based family. In 1930, Christofle was reincorporated as a public limited company, becoming Christofle SA and taking on the Borletti family as major shareholders and important financial backers into the next century. Carla Borletti was not merely a source of new capital for the company, she also proved inspirational in building a new generation of Christofle renown.
Borletti brought in a whole new breed of designers, such as calling upon many of the Art Deco period's great names such as Gio Ponti and Lino Sabattini to recreate the Christofle image. At the same time, Borletti helped establish a new retail concept for the brand, using the Pavillon Christofle name established by Charles Christofle in the mid-1800s. The company began opening its first foreign branches of the Pavillon Christofle retail chain. The Borletti family's sponsorship enabled Christofle to convince its banks to provide new investment capital. By the dawn of World War II, the company had put its financial problems behind it.
If the war years presented a new interruption to Christofle's growth, the great economic expansion of the postwar period helped the company achieve a new scale of international expansion. Now led by Albert Bouilhet and his brothers Henri and Marc, Christofle once again began expanding its manufacturing capacity, opening manufacturing and distribution subsidiaries, including production and distribution subsidiary Sadoga, launched in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950. Other subsidiaries followed, in the United States, Italy, Belgium, and Germany, culminating in the creation of a new Brazilian manufacturing and distribution subsidiary, Pataria Universal SA Brasil, in 1974. The company once again succeeded in establishing an international reputation for its high quality, luxury products. At the same time, Christofle maintained its market leadership in France, where the company represented more than 50 percent of the market.
Christofle remained a profitable company through the high-flying 1980s. Yet the company's attempt to diversify during the decade nearly brought it disaster. Christofle attempted to join the rising brand label awareness of the period by attaching its name to a variety of products, including a line of wristwatches and jewelry. At the same time, the company continued to produce its core product line of highly priced dining table products, such as a $30,000 tea service and similarly priced place settings. The collapse of the world economy at the end of the 1980s caught the company short. By the beginning of the 1990s, Christofle saw its sales shrink and its profits slip into the red. The company attempted to restructure, cutting out more than 150 jobs, adding to its burdens with some FFr 50 million in restructuring costs. By 1992, the company's losses had topped FFr 39.5 million for the year and its level of short-term debt had topped FFr 200 million--a heavy load for a company with just FFr 620 million in sales.
Christofle once again looked to its Italian benefactors. In 1993, Albert Bouilhet tapped first cousin Maurizio Borletti to take over leadership of the flagging family-controlled company. Borletti, then only 26 years old, had already proved himself in business. At the age of 18, Borletti had borrowed $20,000 from his father, who ran a company manufacturing clocks for automobile dashboards, and started his own construction business. After his father's death four years later, Borletti took over his family's business, while also managing the Borletti family's investment portfolio.
Borletti agreed to step over to Christofle, paying $10 million to acquire a 55 percent stake in the company. Borletti then set to work restructuring the company, including imposing new cutbacks on its staff. The most important change Borletti made to the company was a refocus on the company's core tableware production, shedding attempts to diversify into other product categories.
Christofle instead diversified within its core business, adding new lines of products to expand the company's production to include the wider range of table service items, such as porcelain serving dishes, china, and table linens. Rather than simply attaching its label to products produced by licensed manufacturers, Christofle now brought control of its diversified range in-house, guaranteeing the same commitment to quality the company brought to its table service.
Borletti boosted the company's advertising budget, adopting modern-style publicity campaigns for a company that had long relied primarily on its world-renowned name. The company also launched new designs, once again turning to outside artists. Such was the case with a line of table service designed by Christian Lacroix, launched in 1997.
On the retail side, Christofle began stepping up the opening of new Pavillon Christofle stores, entering new markets around the world. By the end of the century, the company operated 75 retail stores and had placed Christofle boutiques in another 400 stores, giving it retail representation in 120 countries.
1793: Christofle family establishes jewelry business.
1830: Charles Christofle takes over business.
1842: Firm buys exclusive rights to electroplating patent.
1845: Company establishes manufacturing facility.
1863: Henri Bouilhet introduces galvanizing technique.
1926: Company is listed on Paris Stock Exchange.
1930: Business incorporates as Christofle SA.
1950: Christofle opens production and distribution subsidiary in Buenos Aires.
1974: Company opens production and distribution subsidiary in Brazil.
1980: Firm attempts diversification into Christofle-branded watches and jewelry.
1993: Maurizio Borletti takes over company operations.
1997: Christian Lacroix designs new company line.
2001: Christian Dior is commissioned for new designs.
CHRISTOFLE HALLMARKS THROUGH HISTORY
The first standard Christofle mark (The "CC" oval mark)
The first Christofle standard full mark, used from 1844 to 1862. The main components of this mark are:
- The oval mark with four stars, two capital "C" letters which mean Charles Christofle, between them a balance and a bee image in the center above two palm-like branches. We will call such a mark the "CC" oval mark
- The inscription Christofle in a cartouche
- The item number running from 1 to at least 290011 (the number which I have in my collection). It follows that the mean productivity of Christofle hollow ware silver-plated items in the mentioned time period was at least 16000 items per year.
The second Standard Christofle full mark (The "CC" oval/square mark)
The second standard full mark of Christofle, used on silver-plated hollow ware in 1862-1935.
The main differences between this mark and the first standard full mark shown above are:
- In the later case the "CC" oval mark is put inside a square box. We will call such mark the "CC" oval/square mark. According to the information obtained from Kathryn Vaughn, the mark in the square box is called the poinçon de responsabilité and refers to one of three legislated marks on French silver plate. Its use on silver plated goods in France was decreed on 26 May 1860 to consist of the maker’s initials and symbol in a square box.
- A bee image between the balance plates is absent; instead there is an image of a flower (rosette).
- Another new element is the designation of the silver content (so-called marque de grammage) in square boxes instead of the former lozenge-shaped ones.
- Finally, the presence of a new specific element, the rhomb with the inscription "METAL BLANC", should be added. We will call it the "mb" rhomb mark. This mark appeared sometime after 1878 and was used for marking the Maillechort (Alpacca) base metal
There was no marking for other base metals used for silver plating, but the use of these other base metals was continued after the introduction of the rhomb mark, though in smaller quantities. Around 40% of the silver-plated Christofle items, issued in 1878-1935, do not carry the "mb" rhomb mark.
The Third legislated Christofle mark (Marque de Fabricant)
The third legislated mark inside the full standard mark used in 1862-1935 is the so-called marque de fabricant or simply the foundry name. In our case it is the "CHRISTOFLE" inscription in a cartouche. The length of the "CHRISTOFLE" inscription inside the full standard mark is not standardized and varies for different items from 5.2 to 10.4 mm. The most frequently found length (in every second item!) is 7.6 + 0.2 mm. Contrary to that, the ratio of the length of "CHRISTOFLE" inscription to its height is very stable. Throughout the XIX century, the mean ratio for 30 pieces is 8.8 + 0.2, while for 19 pieces made in the XX century it is equal to 9.1 + 0.2.
As for the items numbering. Sometimes, the numbering is placed separately from other marks. Sometimes, the pieces with "CC" oval/square mark possess no numbering; amongst them the pieces made after 1930.
Intermediate standard Christofle full mark (The CC oval/square & OC Oval/Rectangular Mark). Without numbering
Between 1930 and 1935 it is believed that an intermediate standard mark was introduced. It has common features with both the CC oval/square and the OC oval/rectangular marks. Similar to the CC oval/square mark it possesses the CC inscription that proves the use of this mark before 1935. In the new mark, the oval inside the square is given separately from the foundry name, similar to the CC oval/square mark. However, the oval of the intermediate mark is placed in a lined box and contains a bee instead of a rosette, like the OC oval/rectangular mark. The size of the oval is about 1.6 mm x 2.5 mm, which more or less corresponds to the size of the oval in the "CC" oval/square mark .
The third standard Christofle full mark (The "CC" oval/square mark)
In 1935, the third standard full mark was introduced, which was in use until 1983. The initials "CC" is now changed to the initials "OC" which means "Orfèvrerie Christofle" (Silversmith Christofle). It should be noted that contrary to the "CC" oval/square mark, the "OC" mark is enclosed in a lined rectangular box. We will call this mark "OC" oval/rectangular mark. Another difference lies in the drawing inside the oval. While the standard "OC" oval/rectangular mark contains a bee, the above-mentioned "CC" oval/square mark contains some kind of flower (rosette) instead of a bee.
The size of the oval is about 1.6 mm x 2.6 mm, which more or less corresponds to the size of the oval in the "CC" mark. The ratio for the "CHRISTOFLE" inscription is 8.6 and again corresponds to the ratio value in the case of "CC" mark. The full mark, used in 1935-1983, includes another unique element to indicate the silver-plating, a "knight" chess figure between two letters "O" and "C" in a square box. The size of the box varies between 1.8 mm x 1.8 mm and 2.2 mm x 2.2 mm.