France is one of the few countries able to claim a large number of artisans with such a variety of unusual and exceptional expertise. Driven by a prestigious history and acting as a showcase for the art de vivre à la Française (French art of living), French arts and crafts today are still the symbol of inventiveness and luxury, the artisans are high representatives of French creativity and lifestyle.
The History of Arts and Crafts in France
Fashion, leather goods, crystal works, jewelry and the refined decoration of prestigious residences are inseparable from French cultural heritage. And behind these amazing and unique creations, you can find artisans with incomparable expertise and who are often anonymously grouped in collectives identified as métier d’art, which directly translates as “artistic occupation” but is better known as the arts and crafts.
The arts and crafts legacy of remarkable French know-how has been carefully developed over the centuries. Since the Middle Ages, it has represented a vital sector of the French economy, related to the construction of buildings, and the manufacture of clothing, tools, accessories, musical instruments and jewelry. At the heart of most French cities, craftsmen were grouped by expertise and organized into guilds, such as those for glass workers and stone masons who were associated with the construction of cathedrals. In testimony to that time, many French streets and neighborhoods still carry the name of the activities that were once practiced there.
The 17th and 18th centuries, considered by many to be the height of the development of the decorative arts, were a golden age for the crafts. The Palace of Versailles, with its ornate decoration and sumptuous furnishings, is a vibrant testimony to this period. Across the country, the craftsmen exposed their ingenuity and precision by producing exceptional pieces that were recognized and exported all over Europe.
With this unique heritage, France is the only country to have classified its craftsmen in an official List of Crafts that, while excluding artists, registered craftsmen with recognized manual expertise, creating a directory of sorts. This list currently has 288 activities associated with the heritage of creation, tradition and restoration.
The country is also one of the few to benefit from a training system for these high-performance occupations, which attracted – and still attracts – many apprentices from around the world, who come to perfect their techniques and who excel in precise crafts and knowledge.
Between Tradition and Innovation It is always amazing how the workshops of craftsmen resemble those of their ancestors. Many of the tools used within these workshops also remain unchanged since the Middle Ages, and some of the manufacturing techniques have been maintained throughout the centuries. But it would be wrong to believe that the crafts remain confined to the past. Driven by a new wave of young designers, fine craftsmanship today seizes the opportunities offered by new technologies such as 3D printing and the use of innovative materials while staying true to their proud heritage.
An international clientele of connoisseurs have a passion for French craft creation. Far from being run-of-the-mill, mass-produced objects, these unique creations made by men and women who respect artistry and history, and allow us all to continue to dream of unique, artisanal products.
Written by Sébastien Chapelier