By Jennifer Gyr

I fell in love with Paris when as a teenager I was watching Audrey Hepburn swan through the ville lumière in the movie “Funny Face”.  Over the years I have been so lucky to make many trips to this enchanted city with friends and family.  My trip in late February was the first time I was in Paris by myself with my limited French vocabulary of “Bonjour”, “Merci” and “Au Revoir” (which even then I would speak in a whisper so that my Southern accent wouldn’t decimate the beauty of the language).

What a magical week it would be.  As Audrey said so perfectly, “Paris is always a good idea”!

Day 2

I traveled to Paris so that I could visit several of Par Excellence’s artisans at their workshops. Today, I was so excited to be heading out of town to see Ateliers Saint-Jacques and to meet up with Pierre-Yves Guenec.  I have seen Pierre-Yves so many times in NYC and I was thrilled to finally visit him in his universe.  Ateliers Saint-Jacques is located outside the village of Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse which is about a 40-minute drive from the center of Paris and just past Versailles.  Pierre-Yves instructed me that when I arrive to turn right through the row of trees past the château and to stop by the tower – I never get these kinds of directions in NYC. When the car turned towards the row of trees and I saw the beautiful château at the end of the drive, I had to pinch myself as I knew I was entering a magical place.

The 300 year-old château located on 160 acres – part of Ateliers Saint-Jacques

Ateliers Saint-Jacques began as a rural trade guild in 1950.  It has four master workshops comprised of Metal (metalwork and wrought iron), Wood (joinery and cabinet making), Stone (stone cutting and marble work) and Bronze (art foundry and sculpture restoration).  They have over 100 of the highest skilled craftsmen working there along with an outstanding and highly reputable apprenticeship program.

The Stone Workshop :

Our first stop was at the stone workshop where I was able to see blocks of stone being chiseled down to the most beautiful shapes.  They were working on a project of a magnificent curving stone staircase for Dior’s store in Paris. To see the rough stone turn into the polished masterpiece makes one marvel at the incredible skill and the artistry of the craftsmen.

From left to right

Picture 1: A young apprentice chiseling a rough block of stone

Picture 2: A piece of the finished marble to be used for the stairway of the Dior’s store

Picture 3: Old and new marble pieces outside the workshop

The Foundry: 

We then headed into the Foundry where they cast bronze sculptures (and do restoration work too). They have made several bronze casts of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” (“La Porte de l’Enfer”) and restored countless other masterpieces, including the Fontaine Bartholdi in Lyon. It was so interesting to see the several step process in bringing a sculpture to life.

This picture is taken during the building of the final mold, made of ceramic. We can see the black of the wax that will be heated to give place to the bronze and the different chimneys installed to pour the metal and let the gas to escape.

The Wood Workshop: 

We then entered the Wood workshop, and I was taken aback by how they could “sculpt” wood into so many beautiful ways.

From left to right:

Picture 1: Curving wooden wall

Picture 2: Pierre-Yves descending a staircase

Picture 3: The famous blue doors for Van Cleef & Arpels

They also do restoration projects.  They were restoring intricate antique glass doors during my visit.

The Metal Workshop:

I was so impressed and in awe of all of the workshops – and then we walked into the Metal Workshop, and it was like the grand finale!  I entered a side room and felt like I stepped into medieval times.  Before me was the majestic forge.  You could almost feel the heat coming from the embers, even though they were long cooled down.

We also visited an area where they were restoring lanterns and decorative ironwork from a château. I loved seeing the drawings and photos lining the wall to aid in their research.

We then rounded the corner, and the largest bronze doors came into view. The craftsmen were hard at work getting it ready to be installed at the cathedral in Liège.

We then proceeded into a metalworking room where Pierre-Yves described how metal is shaped into decorative elements as seen in the four stages in the photo.

Pierre-Yves in the picture is holding the decorative wheel to illustrate the process.

From left to right:

A workbench and a toolbox – I love how the blue color harmonizes with the coat of arms of the Kings in the photo above (new name: Bourbon blue)

Then I saw the “pièce de résistance”:  Ateliers Saint-Jacques is restoring the railing of the balcony to the King’s bedchamber at Versailles, and here it was in front of me. Seeing the Sun King’s visage reminded me of the history that is steeped in these treasures. The photo shows Pierre-Yves pointing out what was original on the gate.

A drawing of the gate: “Those are made by one of our masters as a survey and is the beginning of the entire restoration process. They are originals, hand drawn and new” Pierre-Yves

Ateliers Saint-Jacques has done multiple projects at Versailles. Several years ago, they rebuilt the Royal Gate at Versailles which was destroyed during the French Revolution of 1789 (The photo used with the title of this story shows part of these gate).

After our four hour tour (which flew by!), we had a coffee in Pierre-Yves’s office. I was struck by this model of a fantastical stone staircase.  It reminded me of the creativity, artistry and passion I saw in each workshop and with each artisan as they restore the past and bring the future of design into being.

When I returned to my hotel in Paris, I collapsed on the sofa in front of the fire in the living room, invigorated by all of the design and incredible craftsmanship I witnessed today. I picked up a book on the coffee table, “The New Paris”, and started diving into it and couldn’t wait for the next day to begin as I was going to visit more Par Excellence artisans and explore the galleries and shops in the 7th and 8th.

To be continued … à suivre….et à bientôt!

 

Jennifer Gyr is a Creative Consultant at Par Excellence. After obtaining a degree in Art History and Photography, she was a Helena Rubenstein Intern at MoMA in NYC and she completed the graduate “Works of Art” course at Sotheby’s in London. She then worked for several years at the photography gallery Hamiltons Gallery in London and at Hyperion Press and Keith de Lellis Gallery in NYC. She was a private photography dealer for many years and served as an archivist and curator of a private photography collection in NYC. She also archived the estate of the photographer Horst P. Horst. She has curated several exhibitions and consulted on numerous photo books and exhibitions including with The National Portrait Gallery in London. When not seeking her next travel inspiration she lives in Brooklyn with her Swiss husband.

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