A brief history of Baccarat
‘Baccarat is the most famous name in glass production, and the only one of the great 19th-century glass manufacturers that remains in business today,’ explains specialist Giles Forster, Head of Department in 19th-Century Furniture and Sculpture at Christie’s in London.
In 1764 King Louis XV of France gave permission to found a glassworks in the town of Baccarat. By the 19th century it had become the Compagnie des Cristalleries de Baccarat, which produced objects that were, and still are, synonymous with luxury.
In the mid-19th century Baccarat discovered that the addition of nickel oxide in the manufacturing process created a perfectly clear product, free of discolouration, that imitated precious rock crystal. Baccarat glass was coined ‘crystal glass’, which is, says Forster, ‘highly regarded, not only for its unusual clarity but also for its great solidity and weight’. The term 'crystal’ can only be applied to glass which contains at least 24 per cent lead oxide.
The major part of Baccarat’s production in the 19th century was dinner services, perfume bottles, paperweights and decorative objects. Chandeliers were among the most expensive works of art made by Baccarat — often produced for exhibition or commissioned by only the wealthiest clientele, such as the tsars of Russia, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the Indian marharajas.
Still made today, Baccarat chandeliers are especially prized, and the best examples date to the late-19th century when Baccarat combined its ‘crystal glass’ with gilt-bronze — or ‘ormolu’, as it is known — sculptural mounts.
The best and most sought-after Baccarat chandeliers from this period feature gilt bronze or ormolu-mounted sculptural figures, such as the cherubs holding the candle branches on the example shown above.
To create such elaborate and valuable works of art, Baccarat collaborated with sculptors such as François Hippolyte Moreau (1832-1927) and the ormolu bronze foundries such as Thiébaut Frères. Coupling Baccarat glass with gilt-bronze makes this chandelier more desirable than a plain glass example, and rarer.
What a specialist looks for
‘I always look at the quality of the casting of the ormolu mounts,’ explains Forster. ‘They should be cast in pieces that are joined together before gilding and surface finishing, and I therefore look for traces of joins, visible beneath the gilding, between the arms and torsos of the figures.’
Forster also looks for ‘the quality of the finer detailing — how the surface is worked, or chased as it is called, after the casting’. This is evident in how the faces and hands are finished — the digits of the hands must be distinct and the faces animated yet life-like with the features defined.
With chandeliers, it is inevitable that some of the glass drops and pendants get lost, replaced or repositioned, since the chains and drops have to be removed and rehung every time it is moved.
‘I look to make sure that most of the glass is original,’ says the specialist. ‘Baccarat glass is blown and drawn out by hand with great skill. You can see this in the slight irregularity of scale to the teardrop-shaped pendants, especially.’
The glass cutter’s job is as highly skilled as that of the glass blower. ‘The crystal is carved like a sculpture to minutely varying depths by holding the glass against a sandstone or diamond-set rotating wheel,’ explains Forster.
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‘With Baccarat I look at the weight of the glass,’ Forster explains. ‘It should be heavy in the hand, with the rock-crystal-like colour giving a slightly black refraction when you look into it. The black hue and superb cutting of Baccarat glass diffuses the light in an especially attractive way, giving a diamond-like sparkle.’
Forster also looks for marks, stamps and signatures to determine authenticity and make an accurate date assessment. ‘You often see a white engraved mark on Baccarat glassware. On chandeliers it is often made in raised moulded capitals on the drip pans,’ he says. For the gilt-bronze, Baccarat’s stamp depicts a carafe between a wine glass and a goblet (as shown below).
‘For all their magnificence, there is a natural elegance to Baccarat’s chandeliers,’ says Forster.
This Baccarat chandelier is offered in The Collector: Silver & 19th Century Furniture, Sculpture and Works of Art on 23 May at Christie’s London. Estimate: £30,000-50,000