Silver is a sentimental metal, this interviewer thinks, as he fingers the pendant given to him by his late grandmother. Christofle’s head honcho Thierry Oriez most certainly shares the same view. To wit, take the man's surprisingly lyrical paean to the lustrous metal: “Silver is special. It’s deeply intimate, because it reflects its life—and yours, by extension—in the way it ages.”
We are at Christofle’s polished store at the posh Hilton Shopping Gallery, just hours before the Singapore flagship was due for its reopening ceremony late last year, and the president and CEO of the fine French house is talking to us about his love for his company’s creations. Gentle, avuncular and soundbite-friendly, it's clear that Thierry Oriez has a sterling affection for silver. “The glow of Christofle objects that have been cherished throughout their lifetime is palpable and extremely moving,” he says. “Obviously I’m biased because I’m addicted to this metal, but we have been around since 1830 so we must be doing something right.”
Indeed, for over two centuries Christofle has been instrumental in the development of haute orfèvrerie, seeking out sculptors for collaborations that have yielded historically important pieces representing all the major cornerstones of art. Today, Christofle continues to offer ornaments conjured up by the transportive imagination of the creative vanguard, from French designers Thierry Lebon and Karim Rashid to Italian architect Gio Ponti and American designer Allison Hawkes.
And yet, it is the familial comfort associated with doling out your best silverware—setting the table in anticipation of a multi-generational feast, the song of glasses clinking, the inside jokes and boisterous laughter—that seems to account for Oriez’s fondness of silver. Towards the end of our interview, while we have some time left over to chat, we ask about the timepiece on his wrist. Oriez declines to give the watch’s make, but his reply is a fitting coda to our induction into the soul of silver-smithing: "It's a vintage watch given to me by my father before he passed away. I wear it when I’m traveling to remind myself of home—and of him."
You became CEO of Christofle in 2007. Looking back, how do you think the brand has evolved since its founding in 1830?
Well, the company has always been design-driven, even back in the 19th century when Christofle would engage artists of the day to give their input in our final product. We always have quite the pioneering spirit, I would say. Christofle had a wanderlust that saw it going to the United States almost as soon as it was founded, then Asia and of course the other nations in Europe. So what we’ve tried to do is to retain that spirit of openness and innovation, which for a brand is all the more important in this globalized age we live in.
Who is the Christofle customer today?
Well, it’s difficult to give you a definitive profile of our customers, because there’s such a big difference between say, a fashionable young French woman buying jewelry from our Parisian boutiques, and a yacht owner who wants custom wall-to-wall paneling in her boat. Having said that, I think the one thread that runs through all of our customers is that they are all well-traveled and open to the world, and are looking for the best silver for their buck, really.
The human element is extremely dear to us. Christofle is about friendship and gift giving. We have mothers who have engraved gifts for their babies, in the hope that their child will treasure it and remember them when they grow up. Our objects accrue personal meaning as they age, and become heirloom pieces. That to me is very touching.
"Luxury is the magic that comes when you say, 'Wow! How did they do this?' Having that silver bowl on your desk then becomes a reminder on a personal level to always push yourself to greater things."
What is Christofle doing to woo the Asian market?
Quite frankly I think it goes two ways. First of all Christofle has always embraced its French identity, and we are proud of our heritage. Looking forward, we will certainly continue to leverage upon this solid historical foundation of craftsmanship and technical know-how. At the same time, we do produce select pieces that are inspired by Asian culture—Zodiac animal sculptures in sterling silver, for instance, and chopsticks and teapots.
Even then, I think what we have that isn’t explicitly marketed at Asia will appeal to customers from an Asian background, because our classics will fit into any cosmopolitan home. I’ll also like to point out that we have had a long history of being influenced by the lovely motifs we see in Japan and China. So we view our relationship with Asia not as a faddish dalliance but more of a constant, intimate dialogue we’ve established since our founding.
What trends do you see emerging in the high-end silverware market?
If I have to pick two trends, the first would be the renewed interest and reinterpretation of classical designs. For me, the best example would be the gorgeous objects Marcel Wanders has conjured up for Christofle with the Jardin d’Eden collection, which have all these baroque swirls and floral latticework in a very subtle tracery, so their intricacy is only truly appreciable up-close. And then we have the geometrical, almost art deco approach, with strict lines reminiscent of nature’s minerals and crystal formations, like the pieces from the Arborescence range by Ora-Ito.
You have collaborated with various designers and artists for a high silver collection. How do you decide who to work with?
We keep a close tab on the pulse of the current arts scene, and we meet as many artists as we can through fairs and industry meetings. After that it’s a process of shall we say, finding the right one: getting to know the artists’ work ethic and style, and assessing if they will be right for us in the long term. There’s flirtation back and forth. It’s a long and demanding courtship, but very rewarding in the end for both parties. This is how Christofle has ended up producing works of art with some of the biggest and brightest stars in the world of design, from Michele Oka Doner’s naturalist jewelry to the sleek contemporary ware by Peggy Huyn Kinh.
"The general rule of thumb for me is to treat silver gently without coddling it. I find 'used' silver very beautiful."
If you were to recommend just one piece from Christofle, what would that be? What is your personal favorite?
We’ve worked with so many great artists, but I really like the Jardin d’Eden pieces by Marcel Wanders because they encapsulate what Christofle is about, which is the welding, so to speak, of the old and new. It is the best showcase of what I affectionately call "the shiny metal”, because it really highlights what can be done with this noble material.
What I want to emphasize is the importance of the conversation between the object and its owner. If you take a silver-plated engraved tray and place it on a clean white table setting—no other bells and whistles—it can look absolutely modern, while the same piece in a banquet hall with candles and burgundy velvet curtains can look like a 19th century heirloom. Part of the joy of silverware lies in its duality and how it can transverse multiple worlds depending on its owner.
What should collectors look out for when buying pieces?
New collectors should allow themselves to be seduced. It’s really quite simple. The rest—the research, the care and the more profound understanding—will follow. Most of Christofle’s objects are meant to be livable, in that they grow with you, gaining patina and deep personal value. So my advice is to look for that element of seduction, talk to an expert and see where that leads you.
How should we take care of silver objects?
Easy. If it’s flatware, quite frankly I encourage you to use it daily to get as much pleasure out of it as possible, and off to the dishwasher it goes. We have varnishing and cleaning products for the decorative pieces—and there’s no rule as to how often you should clean your silver, because so many factors are at play: the humidity of your home, the heat and so on. The general rule of thumb for me is to treat silver gently, but without coddling it. I find “used” silver very beautiful.
Christofle also offers custom-made objects. What has been the most memorable custom project you have worked on?
There’s been so many, really, and from time to time when we have new members in our company we invite them to tour Paris to see what we’ve contributed to the spirit of the city. The most magnificent I think are the commissioned pieces on the roof of the Garnier Opera House, which are just breathtaking really: monumental gilt figurines completed in 1868 that show off our house’s revolutionary electroplating technique.
"We view our relationship with Asia not as a faddish dalliance but more of a long intimate dialogue we’ve established since our founding."
What to you is the ultimate luxury?
One of the greatest luxuries in life is to find a job that you enjoy doing. I have been very lucky because if you think about it, I get to travel the world, to work with great designers and to meet and chat with people like you. I count myself immensely blessed.
Can a luxury product ever become a necessity? Is that even a good thing?
Well first let me digress a bit by saying that I don’t think the luxury market as a whole is on a decline, because when I see the figures—for Christofle, at least—we’re racking up double-digit growth, which is very encouraging.
And if enjoying life and a deep regard for finely crafted objects is considered luxurious, then yes, luxury is a necessity. When you understand what is behind the product and the tremendous skill and creativity that go into it, luxury products gain a kind of child-like wonder. Luxury is the magic that comes when you say, ‘Wow! How did they do this?’
Having that silver bowl sit on your desk then becomes a reminder on a macro level of mankind’s ingenuity, and on a personal level to always reinvent and push yourself to greater things.
Is luxury best shared with others or kept for oneself?
Shared, no question. I’m telling you about myself, so we’re sharing luxury here (laughs)! But then again there are certain objects which you develop a very specific bond with that no one else is privy to, like the timepiece I’m wearing. It’s a vintage watch given to me from my father when he passed away. It’s not flashy and it fits my wrist just right. I like wearing it when I’m overseas to remind myself of home—and of him.
What are five luxury products or experiences that are essential in your life?
Family is one. I have a silver box engraved by my grandmother which I treasure a lot, so that’s the second. Hosting dinner for a small group of great friends; playing the flute in my free time; and well, everything really, everything that makes my life worth living.