Foire de Paris Spotlights
Artisans and Creators

photo: figurines pa van gerdinge

After 700 of each of these figures are made,
the molds are destroyed.

Hand-Made Objects Still With Us On
Eve of 2000

Paris:- Wednesday, 28. April 1999:- This morning's Le Parisien says the 'big unwrap starts today' at this year's Foire de Paris. The 'unwrap' should have been yesterday because Paris' super gigantic colossal home show begins today - but I am counting on a bit of 'unwrapping' and fewer crowds.

The 88th Foire de Paris fills up all of the exhibition buildings at Paris-Expo except the ground level of Hall 2. Included then, are the rest of eight large buildings, plus some outside space, inphoto: logo foire de paris the 20 hectare expo-park. There are 3,200 exhibitors spread over 270,000 square metres. This reporter is not taking all of this on.

This year, the last of the century - more or less - is a bit odd because the magic '2000' is mentioned everywhere. As in, '1999' is a mere doorway to '2000.' No last chance nostalgia for the 20th century; we are all to look forward. 'If you think it looks good now Jack, wait until you see next year!' Ya! Ya! Magical 21st Century, Third Millennium! We get to 'live' in 'Star Trek.'

On my trek today, my mental-coin flip tells me to go through Hall 4 instead of around it to Hall 7. This hall is on the way; I may 'see' something.

The first thing is tourism, right where it was last year. Since regions are represented as well as such obvious exhibitors as the SNCF, I could spend a long time here - but Hall 7 beckons.

After tourism there is 'environment' and then TV-HiFi-Video, 'Multimedia' and Internet! Actually I am not aware I am 'in' this particular area even though I stop to ask the cost of a zoomy TV set, which turns out the be an extra 5000 francs for the design alone, plus it is all Digital! except its plastic case. With interest rates as low as they are and the 'Salon Discount,' it would only cost me 318 francs a month for 43 years.

It is very early, opening day with school holidays on, so there are not too many gawkers at all; and this leaves wide aisles and the stands are like widely-separated islands. This makes it seem as if there is not too much to 'oh' and 'ah' over.

I make a token stop at Hewlett Packard's stand which says 'Multimedia!' and 'Internet!' on its outside. On its inside, it is all about how the two buzzwords fit into the domestic life of a modern household. Basically, the idea is that electronic media should be pumped into every room - but H-P has forgotten to include a bathroom or a toilet.

For this, I have two questions. Is any of it French? Answer: no. What has taken them - the whole home electronic industry - what has taken them so long to get to this stage? Gallic shoulder shrug, lifted eyebrows.

I have some drawings and specs at home, for a 'kitchen' computer, that I 'invented' - on paper - in 1986. As George Bush used to say, "It's that vision thing." One hundred years ago speed records were made in obscure villages like Achères, and today nobody has thought to design a toilet-TV to make sure viewers don't miss the commercials. No 'vision;' time no longer flies.

The French Air Force does though and its stand near the further end of the building has some full-size display cockpits, plus a set of cockpit-like game consoles - for playing fighter pilot - or maybe... making night sorties over Korsovo? The less said, the better.

So I get going to where I was going in the first place - to Hall 7 and up to the top. This year a new 'salon' within the Foire, is for 'Artisans and Creators.' This is not expected to be the same as the 'inventors' who are in Hall 5, at the Concours Lépine area.

In France there are two countries. One is Paris and the other is France - with a population of about 49 million, andphoto: new antique mannequins it includes everything and everybody beyond the area of the Ile-de-France. Paris is expensive, so many artisans and craftsmen normally live and work in the 'other' country.

Not only new mannequins, but dressed in new period costumes - for the theatre.

High rents in Paris and distribution being what it is, make the Foire the only place to see the wares of the artisans living in the 'other country.' They come to various salons and exhibitions held in Paris; where they pay high rents for stands and booths, but only for short periods.

My opinion may be mistaken, but I do not believe everything must be small and plastic or big and plastic; or made in huge factories by elves and robots. All around, even in Paris, there is evidence of handwork.

After the long ride up the escalators to level 3 in Hall 7, I run into Mr. Van Gerdinge at his stand right inside the entry. At first glance his glass case full of figurines in period military costumes does not seem remarkable.

"The French can't do legs," is the first thing he says to me. This is a bit boggling, but true. Mr. Van Gerdinge decides on this year's production of one figure; does all the historical research, makes the molds for head, body, arms and legs, and then has the legs attached by a sub-contractor in Germany, where the secret of how to do it is carefully guarded.

Each figure starts out a third larger than the final version; to allow for shrinkage. After initial firing - these are ceramic - painting begins and refiring - blue needs 1000 degrees, but red only 600 - and more repainting and refiring follows, up to seven or eight times.

Meanwhile, accessories like belts and gloves are made from leather and swords are made of metal - all carefully researched and hand-made. Just over 700 of the figures are cast and then the molds are destroyed. Each figure is numbered, documented and boxed. When number 700 is sold, there are no more.

Over a period of years, the shops in Paris which carried these expensive and rare figurines, have all closed. Production keeps up and sales are largely by word-of-mouth. The prices reflect the hand-work involved in the creation and production; but are not adjusted for rarity. Number five of a particular model is the same price as number 700, even through only four will be left after it is sold.

Mr. Van Gerdinge shows me a cannon carriage. It is really a scale, working model. Other carriages have complete miniature suspensions systems, made of leather like the originals. Now that I'm looking closely, I notice that the horses are extraordinarily well-done - they look like horses, with matte glazes. Another point made by Mr. Van Gerdinge, is that all the figures, horses and carriages, are in 'in scale.'

You can have whichever set of horses you want, to go together with Napoléon's rapid carriage; the one with full-leather upholstery, leather map case with maps, gun case with metal and wood guns, and the snazzy working suspension.

At first glance, I didn't see any of this. Talking for such a long time to Mr. Van Gerdinge, as old customers come by to say hello, has made me look - at something I've never seen before. As I write above, this is right inside the door, and there are about another 220 stands and booths to see.

The 'artisans' and 'creators' of France are very definitely menaced by our age and its insane desire for plastic. For this year's salon, they are under the umbrella of 'Oberac,' and the 'SEMA' which have not made a lot of documentation available.

The 'Oberac' is engaged in keeping track of rare islands of skills, and seeks ways to prevent their disappearance. It was created by the 'SEMA,' which attempts to preserve the skills necessary to maintain the authenticity of the all-over museum that is France. When Louis' place at Versailles needs new curtains, the replacements cannot be found at Tati - they have to come from Jacquard in Tours.

Specific tools needed to repair masonry, for example, have to be made - just as they were originally. This is not fanaticism to historical detail, but a reflection of the fact that the old tools are not manufactured anywhere except here, by hand.

Among the stands there are displays of modern craftsmanship; in glass, jewelry, leatherworkphoto: francois bolli, knife and metal. One such is shared by the knife-maker François Bolli and the glass artist, Anne Holtzer, who says she can ship the pieces anywhere

François Bolli shows traditional skinning knife with Damascus blade and handle formed by some large animal's tooth.

It is the startling effects of the glass objects that stops my cruise, but this leads me to look at the knives too. There are knife shops all over Paris, but Mr. Bolli's are not in any of them. Except from some handsome and ultra-designed modern knives made in small series,' the rest and largest part of Mr. Bolli's production are one-offs.

One elegant knife steps out of the merely clean-design category when Mr. Bolli tells me its handle is made from the bone of a mammoth. It is not hard to get he says. In all he makes about 300 knives a year and tells me there are 40 other 'professionals' in France making them full-time.

The stand opposite features dolls made by Jeane Maryjean-Blasquez. Making as many as 150 per month, their unusual characteristic is that they are made entirely of fabric, including the faces. The periodphoto: maryjean blasquez dolls costumes represent the regions of France as well, and you have to look closely to see the tiny details of the lace.

For a price, Mme Maryjean-Blasquez will make a doll for you, or of you, from a supplied photo. Like many others here, she has sparse or no outlets in Paris - shops that once carried her crafted wares are no more.

A selection of hand-made dolls with the cloth faces, in all their finery.
Designs©Jeane Maryjean-Blasquez

By this point I have skimmed about a third of this salon within a salon, and time is short for me today. I leave, having the feeling that I should come back many times - but on opening day people have time to talk, and this is probably the last chance.

The Artisans et Creators have a good location though because the rest of Hall 7/3 is devoted to regional food specialties and wines - many hundreds of exhibitors - from all over France - and 16 foreign countries, which will make this floor one of the salon's most popular.

At the far end of the building, there are the big beer-garden-like restaurants too. Today, at this time, there is practically no one about except the owners of the booths and stands - but on the weekend this area will be something approaching the world's biggest café, wine bar and restaurant.

The Hall 7/3 is as far as you can get from the entrance to the Foire de Paris, and the level 3 is as far up inphoto: bouzy rouge champagne the building you can go. By the time hungry and thirsty Parisians get here, they may be desperately famished. You have been warned. Prepare for a spectacle if you venture here.

Final note: this year's new version of the ultimate oyster-opener, is on display in the 'Concours Lépine' - the Inventors' Competition - in Hall 5. For oyster-opener collectors: not to be missed!

'Artisans et Créations,' in Hall 7/3 - Paris-Expo - at the Porte de Versailles - until Sunday, 9. May. Daily from 10:00 to 19:00; weekends from 9:30 to 19:00. Open until 22:00 on Tuesday, 4. May. Usual entry charge is 50 francs, but after 19:00 it drops to 25 francs.

For more information about the Oberac program, send email to the SEMA in Paris.

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