If, after having wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread at one of Paris' top restaurants, you were to flip it over, the chances are you'd see the name Bernardaud. A family business, it has been synonymous with both porcelain and the town of Limoges since its humble beginnings in 1863. A quintessentially French brand, it's succeeded in embracing all the advantages of modern technology, while keeping its unique savoir-faire at the very core of its activity, making it today’s most famous luxury crockery brand.
Although the technique for making porcelain has been around for over two millennia, its manufacture in France wasn't possible until the discovery in 1768 of kaolin, one of its constituent elements (the others being feldspar, quartz and water) at Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, a village some 50-odd kilometres from Limoges. It was in this context, helped enormously by the newly-built railway, that an apprentice-turned-head of sales named Léonard Bernardaud, at a porcelain factory founded in 1863, bought out the two founders in 1900 and gave the new company his name.
After Léonard opened up markets in the United States, his sons, Jacques and Michel, managed to navigate both the Great Depression and World War II, before introducing the revolutionary tunnel kiln which produced more solid pieces with fewer defects. Pierre, Michel's son, took over the business in 1962 and oversaw huge changes including the opening of a factory in Oradour-sur-Glane (infamous for its tragic destruction at the hands of the Nazis), introducing the isostatic press, bringing in Raymond Loewy to design a contemporary dinner service and airing the company's first TV adverts.
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Today, under the direction of Michel, Pierre's son, Bernardaud has grown internationally and pairs the latest technological advances with incredible individual skill and dexterity. It's thanks to their peerless craftsmanship and innovation that Bernardaud is considered the Rolls Royce of porcelain and why they supply the world's best restaurants and hotels and personalise and invent new dinnerware services to meet the specific needs of the planet's greatest chefs.
So, how is a piece of Bernardaud porcelain made? Well, each different piece has its own special manufacturing process, comprising industrial and artisanal techniques. Every piece starts out in one of three forms: powder (round, flat pieces), putty (round, raised pieces), or liquid (hollow pieces). Then of course a model of each piece needs to be made in order to produce the mould. Pieces then need to be dried, additional parts added (such as handles), seams removed, fired once, glazed, fired a second time and then of course checked for flaws.
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Pieces are then decorated using various techniques, including hand painting, lithography, serigraphy and acid engraving. The human skill required for each task, be it glazing, casting or gold lining, is quite remarkable and is what really sets Bernardaud apart from the rest. What's more, staff tend to stay at the company for much or all of their careers, often doing one task for a decade or more, from whence the perfection of the pieces.
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The 20 million pieces made by Bernardaud each year now also include decorative objects, lighting and jewellery, and the company continues to collaborate with some of the world’s top artists and designers. Their latest venture is with Jeff Koons and a trio of balloon animals along the same lines as his famous dog sculpture.
Visitors to Limoges can enjoy the hands-on Bernardaud museum where they can attempt the techniques used in the manufacturing process. The Fondation Bernardaud also puts on an annual exhibition and this year the theme is flowers. It runs until 24 February 2018.
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