A fine wine deserves a fine glass. The idea is not new. Ever since 1666 the Cristalleries Royales de Champagne, founded under the patronage of the self-proclaimed Sun King Louis XIV of France, has been producing fine crystal ware in the village of Bayel, a commune in the Aube department midway between Troyes and Chaumont.
Bayel’s noble heritage underpins the sense of pride felt by the 60 or so craftsmen who make up the workforce today. Their creative output centres on the production of Champagne glasses but also extends to decanters, bottles and purely decorative objects. With more than 52 types of Champagne flutes listed in its catalogue, each one hand blown and requiring a very particular set of skills, the Bayel crystal works occupies a leading position in the Champagne market.
A jumble of tubes lead off in all directions before voiding in a huge airtight chamber: an immense mixing machine that reduces the raw materials for crystal to a fine powder. Production is based on a a chemical cocktail of silica-sand, lead, potash and recycled crystal (usually remnants from the production process), produced at an average rate of one tonne per day. This powder is then offloaded into wheelbarrows, ready for mixing with metallic oxides if the crystal is to be coloured. Adding magnesium oxide, for instance, will turn the future glass orange.
Glass-making as such only takes place from 6am to 1pm. The rest of the day is devoted to the hot end of glassworks, beginning at 1pm when the batches of powder are preheated in pots made from fireclay, then placed in an immense pot furnace with the temperature now increased to 1300 degrees. The next day day, at least 14 hours later, the powder has been transformed into a pliable material ready for shaping. All of the pots are hand-crafted in the Bayel pottery studio, produced at an average rate of 45 per annum. Each one can contain up to 700kg of powder and has an average working life of three months.
The glassmaker collects a ’gob’ of red hot glass on the tip of an iron rod, rotating the rod constantly to work the glass into a ball. With the aid of a blow pipe (or blow tube), that ball is first inflated then hollowed out to form the parison. This is the hollow part of a wine glass, which together with the stem and the foot, makes up the three main parts of a wine glass. Air is blown in steadily to fashion the crystal into the required shape.
After the parison comes the stem, which is formed by blow moulding (blowing molten glass into a mould) or pulling the molten glass with iron tongs. The foot is then added to the parison and shaped using a pair of rollers or a mouillette (a strip of carbonized cardboard that is first soaked in water). The finished glass is then reheated in a furnace to a uniform temperature of 490°C to minimise the risk of thermal stress and its attendant imperfections.
On average one in every five pieces is rejected as substandard. Every piece, whatever its unique features, must match others of the same model. It now only remains to open up the bowl of the wine glass (which is still closed at this stage) carefully cutting off the top with a blowtorch to remove the upper surface of the parison. The glass is then polished prior to a third and final re-heating.
The Champagne glass is now ready for decoration. This may include hand-painting, etching and/or engraving the surface of the glass with a diamond grinding wheel — a particularly intricate process that requires great dexterity on the part of the craftsman.
The first glassmakers came to Bayel in the 13th Century when Philippe Le Bel was King of France. Glass making at the time depended on furnaces fuelled by wood — and Bayel had plenty of that. Three centuries later, Louis XIV’s Prime Minister Jean Baptiste Colbert also took a close interest in Bayel’s artistic glassworks, which he set out to develop along with France’s craft industries in general. It all really started in 1666 with the arrival of Venetian glassmaker Jean-Baptiste Mazzolay together with other glassmakers from Murano. That year, by an edict of Louis XIV, Mazzolay received permission to install his manufacture in Bayel, which remained the official supplier to the French Royal Court until 1727. Production at the Cristalleries Royales de Champagne has declined since then but not to the exclusion of such famous customers as Charles De Gaulle, Kennedy and the King of Morocco. It remains the preferred supplier for several Champagne Houses.
Bayel ranks alongside Baccarat, Daum, Lalique as one of the top names in glassmaking, awarded the much coveted industry credentials "NF Haute Cristallerie". The new team headed by Patrice Gabus fully intends that it should stay that way, determined to restore Bayel to its former royal glory.