MESSRS. CHRISTOFLE & CO.'S PLATING WORKS IN PARIS
The precious metals being rare, says a sententious French writer, money and ornament speedily absorb them ; but in all forms, they remain an unalterable value. And it is this unalterable quality which distinguishes them from other materials, even more brilliant in appearance, than themselves. Red copper, perfectly scoured, is more splendid than gold, and steel, at its highest polish, more superb than silver. But both steel and copper may rust or blacken, and be disfigured and worthless for ever, by the action of the elements; but for gold and silver there is, secularly speaking, no decay. The famous Christofle factory commenced with simple gilding on wood, leather, cardboard, and paper, and went on, through long and elaborate processes of metallurgy, until the founders of the works began to bethink themselves of the paths laid out by their predecessors, and to believe that the Cellinis might have their representatives yet in modern days. Much experience, no doubt, was gained from the records of the voltaic battery, and the innumerable experiments arising from it ; yet the Christofle enterprise carries this industry above all former heights. The firm paid, for apparent violations of patent, millions (in francs) here, and millions there; it fought through long legal battles for rights and patents; it gained medals from exhibitions beyond counting ; but it never succeeded in disproving the initiatory rights of the English inventors. So far then, the Christofle factory must be regarded as a successful adaptation, and no more, flourishing upon expired English patents, but deserving of all possible credit on account of the spirit with which it has developed the ideas of their originators. The importance of this industry may be suggested by a simple parallel. Supposing the Christofle works to have been executed in solid metal, they must have withdrawn two hundred millions sterling from the National currency ; as it is, they have utilised, year by year, about seven millions in value of the precious metals only. This, however, is a remark merely by the way. We have nothing to do, after all, with the economy of the subject,–simply with its mechanical facts. But to begin with, let it be understood that we have to consider a process which annually covers, upon gold and silver, a superficies equal to many thousand square acres, as they are measured upon this earth,–many thousand acres in fact, of superficial silver and gold. The first necessity, of course, is to get rid of rust ; then to do away with oil or grease, in whatever form and to whatever extent it may adhere ; next to produce a perfectly uniform surface ; lastly to determine upon the different methods to be adopted, with regard to either bronze or its kindred compounds ; for not only have different metals or compounds to be treated in different ways, but their various temperaments, as it were, have to be considered. Thus bronze in its several stages, must bo regarded as a number of distinct substances, and so with brasswork, through all stages up to the perfection at which it can be improved by no gold or silver plating whatever. Assuming, however, that the essential processes must be gone through, after the rust has been got rid of, there is a sort of earth or turf furnace, through which the metal, in the highest state of fusion, is passed ; then its collection and percussion beneath the blows of a hammer, which beats the whole of the broken fragments into a fabric; afterwards the formation of another crust or rest of black copper, dispelled by a bath of sulphuric acid, diluted with water; and then, after a series of chemical baths, the metal is prepared for the Ecsicrucian legerdemain. The Messrs. Christofle avow that they rarely turn out from their works a set of solid, or even half-solid, gold or silver. When they profess to do it, it is of course done, but the demand is not great for this kind of luxury, " in the solid," though as we are assured, the saving is far less than might generally be imagined between the substantial and the imitated work of art, the latter more meritorious, often, than the former, for they require the most minute watchings of temperature in the furnace, of weight after coming out of it, of calculation as to what is true and what is meretricious material, of facings and brightenings from almost invisible and incalculable quantities. It would be impossible, without an almost inexplicable –by figures or descriptions,–account of processes, or without artistic illustrations of the works, to reach, before the reader's eye, the stage at which the work takes practical shape in the sight of ordinary intelligence. The gold, or silver, has now been solved into a state resembling porcelain biscuit, capable of any polish or finish that may be desired. The moulds are ready. The metals may be plunged into them, and shaped into any form, whether of statues, dinner table centres, chimney ornaments, clock-cases, or those thousand and one shapes in which " gummed gilt," holds a position. Even now, however, the prime work of the Compagnie Christofle has not been brought to an end. It has to be scrubbed by metallic brushes, revolving at the rate of five hundred turns a minute, and wetted with mucilaginous water ; every particle has to come up in its turn, and be accurately touched ; and this part of the work is carefully followed by nimble-handed girls, experienced at their task, whose steel instruments make up, as a rule, for whatever is deficient in the larger machinery. These girls, it may be stated, are selected for their work with the utmost care, so delicate and elaborate are the tasks imposed upon them, though their earnings rarely average beyond half a crown or three shillings a day. They are incapable, in fact, of performing the labour required from men–of hammering down gold and silver surfaces into the forms which will be required by the artist, as his models and designs in the rough ; of beating heavy masses into hollow patterns, between metal and parchment; of distributing a mass of metal in the manner which gives a result of luxury. The Messrs. Christofle, however, understand their business, and employ men, women and girls accordingly. Their art is now chiefly directed to the reproduction, through gilding and silvering processes, of fine art objects, wrought by the chisel; of decorative furniture and imitative statuary; and, especially,of all such objects of art, beauty, and splendour as might properly be represented by masses of solid silver or gold. They employ, to this end, an alloy of a combination peculiarly their own, or, rather, two combinations, both composed of copper and zinc, though in different proportions, the first used, so to speak in the foundation forms, the second in the outward or auxiliary decorations ; these latter being, more or less, sculptured with tools of steel. The originals, however, in each instance, must be modelled in moulds of plaster or of wax, passing through, afterwards, repetition moulds in sand and crucibles of fire-brick or clay ; and, even after these tests have been gone through, the great ordeal is to come, the working out of the pattern by the engraver, or by his slaves, who have sunk a pattern in steel, or else in galvanoplating. At this stage, the process, whatever the principle adopted, becomes extremely interesting. It sets steam-hammers at work ; it puts endless bands revolving ; it draws and carves patterns upon otherwise insensate surfaces ; it treats gold and silver as though they were gauze and thread, and stamps and weaves them into the imitations of Middle-age antiquity. The alloy engaged, even where electroplating does not come into question, is of a peculiar kind, according to what is actually adopted as the Christofle tariff, – copper, zinc, and nickel,–the last being valued as giving to the entire compound a more perfect whiteness and a greater durability. It may afford some idea of the industry thus kept going, to say that twelve furnaces are constantly at work; that a thousand hundred-weight of the "facsimile metal " are brought under the steam-hammer every day, that miles upon miles of the glistening surfaces are prepared within the space of every twenty-four hours,–for this is a silent as it is an unrelaxing industry,–and that, in an ordinary way, the workmen of MM. Christofle can turn you out, for the most brilliant uses of Parisian dinner-tables, family plate at the rate of a dish cover a minute, sufficient, assuredly, to conceal the sins of many cooks. But the dish-cover, when it comes out of the machine, is a flat piece of metal; it has to be tortured into an oval, or circular or other shape ; yet leaving that alone, we are brought face to face with the statistics of this gigantic manufactory for one year :–300,000 dish-covers, 35,000 dessert covers, 550,000 coffee-spoons, and 90,000 dessert-knives, and, as the statement confesses, "a whole rubric of little goldsmiths' work" for sugar basins, sauce-boats, fruit services, and so forth. Well, the Christofle establishment employs about 1,500 hands,–nearly all skilled, –and pays about six millions of francs a year in salaries and wages, not a single franc of which, we may rest assured, is thrown away. Recently, too, it has brought within the scope of its operations the application of aluminium, allied with copper, to objects of art, and the success of the experiments in this direction has been more than satisfying to those by whom they were originated. There has been a long struggle between the French and the English with respect to gold, bronze, electroplate, and other mixed work, relatively to the art industry, and the industrial art, now common objects of ambition to both nations ; and it must be matter of hope, on each side, whichever put a foot forward in advance, that the true principle shall take the lead ; so that we welcome these reports from the Christofle factories, whether of gold and silver in their purity, or in their mellowed adaptations to the necessities and customs of the time, as pointing to prizes within reach, and well worth winning when won.
Source: The Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith - 6th October 1879