Jewelry in the French Tradition

The small Parisian neighborhood surrounding the rue de Richelieu is like much of Paris—narrow streets and sidewalks lined with small shops and restaurants on the first floors of immaculately kept low-rise buildings. The streets are filled with workers in the afternoon and fun-seekers at night. But the area along the rue de Richelieu is also unique: For at least a hundred years, the neighborhood has been known for producing some of the finest handcrafted jewelry in the world.

Among the few tiny businesses remaining that continue the tradition of creating fine handcrafted jewelry are Mathon Paris, Cristofol Paris, and de Percin Paris. Their names are not known among consumers, and the owners of the companies are secretive about their clients. But their work is sold at some of the most exclusive retail establishments in the world.

Mathon and Cristofol are housed in the same narrow 100-plus-year-old building (an elevator was installed four years ago). Each occupies a single floor that contains workshops, design areas, and business offices.

Camille Bournadet founded Mathon in 1931. Roger Mathon, a designer with the company, bought out Bournadet in 1972 and now runs the business with his brother Frederic and sister Pascal, keeping its tradition intact.

The company has a staff of 18. Nearly all the work is done by hand, employing many of the same techniques that were used when the company was founded. Even some of the equipment dates back to the company’s beginnings.

In the work area are four persons who make prototypes, three who assemble or mount the parts using gold, and one employee who does both hand and machine polishing. Two others work in a separate area where they set diamonds and gemstones. In addition to gemstones, the company does plenty of work with pearls.

Recently, the company has been emphasizing the final stages of production, says company director Frederic Mathon. “An increasing part of our business is the finishing of our product,” he says. “The quality of the jewel depends on the finishing. We have [one full-time and one half-time person] fully dedicated to quality control. We check the quality of casting and control the quality of the parts that are almost finished. Then we assemble everything and make sure it all works well.”

One of the few pieces of modern equipment in the workshop is a laser-soldering machine. Mathon says laser soldering allows them to create designs with emeralds and pearls that would be impossible using hand soldering.

According to Mathon, keeping up with demand is the main challenge for fine jewelry operations such as his. That’s because family-owned retail businesses are being replaced by large corporations whose strategy is to open more stores all over the world.

One way in which Mathon plans to meet this challenge for increased production is to bring its casting operation in house, he says. (Casting is presently outsourced.) In addition, the company also wants to hire up to 10 setters. But increased production brings concerns about maintaining quality. “Theoretically and in practice, the greater the production, the more difficult it is to maintain quality,” Mathon says. “Here, the challenge is to find more qualified people to produce more jewelry. The business is very up and down. And some people leave the business.”

He adds, “I think we could double our capacity. Our strategy is to sell to about 30 high-end shops in the United States.”

Mathon entered the U.S. market about a year ago, and the company’s products are now available in select jewelry stores on the East Coast, as well as in Texas and major cities on the West Coast. And, breaking with tradition, Mathon also is developing a line of products under its own brand.

Past meets present. Two floors down from Mathon are the offices of Cristofol Paris 1830. Cristofol’s workshop is a near mirror image of the Mathon operation, with some of its equipment dating back to the company’s 19th-century roots. Dominique De Blanchard, chairman and managing director of Cristofol, explains that the company specializes in one-of-kind products, jewelry clocks, art objects, and prestigious boutique lines. It produces pieces on specification for wealthy buyers and provides products for the most exclusive “big name” retail jewelers in the world as well as some exclusive independent jewelers.

De Blanchard, who purchased the company in 1985, has maintained the Cristofol name, which the company has had since 1927.

Among its brands are the “Capucines Paris,” which was launched in Japan in 1999 and at Basel 2000. The collection, which focuses on “nature, romanticism, and tenderness,” was created to celebrate the coming of the new century. Its other noteworthy brand is the “Marchak Paris” line, a recreation of the romantic brand from Kiev, also launched at Basel 2000.

The company has done a lot of work for the Sultan of Brunei’s family, including producing a 1-meter by 35-cm carpet made of 35,000 gemstones, De Blanchard says. Unfortunately, when the world’s richest family stopped buying products, Cristofol—like similar operations—lost 60% of its business in a year.

The company is quick to change production practices when it finds new techniques that help improve the products. Two years ago, for example, the company began using CAD (computer-aided design) programs to help develop designs. Like Mathon, the company employs laser soldering. But most of the workshop adheres to handcrafted techniques that are more than a century old.

“It’s a very old workshop,” De Blanchard says. “We do a lot of work with platinum, hand fabrication, and casting. All of our models are hand made.”

The company exports about 90% of its work, including 60% to the United States. The company would like to increase its share of the U.S. market, but De Blanchard says that will be a difficult task.

“For workshops like ours, the U.S. market is very difficult,” De Blanchard says. “Retailers want to work on consignment. For houses that do top work, it is very difficult. I don’t like to work on consignment, and I will not work on consignment.”

De Blanchard does want to increase the amount of work she does for small independent jewelers and says she’s determined to find a way to make the arrangement work.

Competing with quality. A few blocks away from Mathon and Cristofol is the workshop of de Percin Paris. A bit larger and slightly more modern than the other two companies, de Percin produces a variety of jewelry and accessories for men and women, including cufflinks, key chains, tie clips, rings, bracelets, brooches, necklaces, and earrings.

Although most of the production is done by hand, the company also uses state-of-the-art machinery such as computerized casting machines and laser welders, says manager Olivier de Percin. The company has been in business for 63 years and employs about 25 workers.

Like Mathon and Cristofol, de Percin’s products are sold under the names of other brands at exclusive retailers. According to de Percin, the company competes by focusing on cutting-edge designs, unique use of materials, and excellent workmanship.

“We prefer to compete with quality, not with price. We like to promote new ideas and good ideas,” he says. “We try to be reasonable, but we don’t want to be cheap. Our customers want quality.” He adds that the company has “no fear” when it comes to combining gold, silver, and silk in its products.

Among its newest products is a “cufflink system,” which the company describes as “five different cufflinks in one.” The tops can be removed from the stems and replaced with any of five different styles, such as a Tahitian pearl or an enameled ball. The cost, with carrying case, is about $2,500. “These are cufflinks for every day of the week,” de Percin says.

The company exports about 30% of its product, with 20% of its export business going to the United States and much of the rest going to Asia. The company has a Paris-based representative who visits the United States three or four times each year. “We sell a lot of studs in the States,” de Percin says.

The company also serves its retailers by quickly meeting retailer and consumer needs, de Percin notes. “We are a very small company, so we have to react as quickly as possible,” he says. “The more we deliver quickly, the better it is. We cannot produce mass quantity.”

In competing with the world, French companies are often at a disadvantage because of the country’s high taxes, strict work laws, and rigorous enforcement of those laws. (To reduce unemployment, French law prohibits anyone in France from working more than 35 hours per week.) So companies like de Percin, Mathon, and Cristofol focus on efficient operating practices and French aspects of quality and design. “The better the quality of casting, the less work people have,” de Percin says. “This is the only way we can compete with Asia.”

By all accounts, the strategy is working. By emphasizing quality workmanship, using the finest materials, and creating innovative designs, these small French businesses continue to distinguish themselves.

Next month, JCK looks at three top French jewelry brands.