The Ashtrays of Limoges

| By David L. Ross | From Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

Europe's top chefs, such as Fredy Girardet of Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland, certainly know what it takes to end a terrific meal: great desserts, perhaps a fine Cognac or Port, and, of course, the best in cigars. They also understand that, as part of the traditional postprandial experience, a good cigar demands a proper ashtray.

This uncompromising attitude about smoking accoutrements, after all, is linked to their absolute belief that fine crystal, silver and china immeasurably enhance the enjoyment of a good dinner. It's all part of what the French call art de vivre, the art of living. This outlook, they would explain, is inextricably linked to l'art de la table, the art of properly setting a table. For these arbiters of taste, a table isn't properly "dressed" if it doesn't include a cendrier Havane from Limoges: that is, a porcelain ashtray made specially to handle an amply proportioned cigar.

So instead of offering just any sort of glass or crystal ashtray, Girardet, whose Michelin three-star restaurant offers a first-class selection of Cuba's finest cigars, goes a step further. To indulge those guests who top off an evening with a great smoke, the restaurant furnishes appropriately oversized Limoges porcelain ashtrays to cradle the cigar and collect its ashes. At Girardet, as at many other two- and three-star establishments, the ashtrays are decorated in the same exclusive motif that graces the restaurant's entire Limoges porcelain dinner service.

To these chefs and other aficionados, there are ashtrays and, then, there are ashtrays. Just where you tap that ghostly white cigar ash, after many moments of smoking pleasure, is as much a statement about appreciating the finer things in life as the selection of a good cigar.

Where can you find the world's ultimate ashtrays? The answer, fortunately, is as easy as a first-year French lesson: Limoges (pronounced lee-MOZH).

Located in central France, this slow-paced but agreeable town is known as the cradle of the French porcelain industry; and the ashtrays that artisans produce there, usually part of larger sets of elaborate dinner service, are recognized around the world as the classiest way to cradle a great cigar during a leisurely after-dinner smoke.

That Girardet and other top restaurateurs select Limoges porcelain shouldn't come as a surprise, however. Leading porcelain firms from the city of Limoges, including Bernardaud, de Haviland and Deshouliéres, among others, have been manufacturing fine tableware for Europe's royal houses--not to mention top hotels, restaurants and private clients--for more than 150 years. Indeed, porcelain production in Limoges dates back to the late eighteenth century, according to Michel Bernardaud, director general of Porcelaines Bernardaud, who is himself an avid cigar smoker and someone, of course, who knows a thing or two about t'art de la table and ashtrays.

Bernardaud says that France's oldest, continuously operating porcelain producer, Ancienne Manufacture Royale, was founded by the Comte d'Artois in the early 1770s. The Comte d'Artois was the grandson of Louis XV, king of France, hence the "Royale." (In exile, the Comte survived the French Revolution and the turbulent Napoleonic era; later, in 1824, he was crowned Charles X, reigning as king of France from 1825-1830.) Today, Bernardaud, which was founded by Michel's great grandfather, Leonard, and traces its origins to 1863, owns 50 percent of the Ancienne Manufacture Royale, which is operated separately from the family-owned company.

In fact, porcelain making is far older than the Ancienne Manufacture Royale; it's actually an ancient art with roots that can be traced halfway around the world to China. There, according to historical accounts, the production of elaborately designed, clay-fired vases, plates, teapots and the like is a centuries-old tradition. According to art experts, there are some Chinese porcelain vases and bowls that date back to the tenth and eleventh centuries.

One of the world's most celebrated travelers, Marco Polo, is generally credited with being the first to bring Chinese porcelain to Europe following his thirteenth-century voyage across Persia and the Indian subcontinent and through what is present-day China. According to legend, Marco Polo's description of porcelain still evokes something of the excitement of his travels, his shared treasures: "It is fine, brilliant and transparent, like seashells; like real porcelain!"

Marco Polo's porcelainé de Chine, those imports of fine tableware from China, became known over time as porcelain, or, more simply, as china in English-speaking countries. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, European artisans tried for years, without success, to reproduce these exotic treasures. Indeed, only after much trial and error would European artisans finally unlock the Orient's jealously guarded techniques of firing the special clay that is used to make fine porcelain.

By the early 1700s, after countless experiments using different clay compounds, various firing temperatures and specially mixed glazes, European artisans and chemists at last mastered the Asian art of porcelain production. Soon thereafter, German, French and English craftsmen were turning out fine porcelain table service for the leading royal courts throughout Europe. By the late eighteenth century, the most famous names and centers of porcelain production were Meissen in Germany, Sévres and Limoges in France, Ginori in Italy and Royal Worcester and Spode in England.

Given this lineage, porcelain is the true aristocrat of earthenware. In contrast to other types of oven-fired tableware, porcelain is different in three chief ways: porcelain is produced using special clays and compounds; it is oven-fired at much higher temperatures than other types of earthenware; and finally, its decorations, known as glazes, are specially prepared for higher temperatures and, quite often, are carefully applied by hand.

All Limoges porcelain, like those of its illustrious counterparts in Austria, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, utilizes a special clay, which is composed of a mixture of kaolin, quartz and feldspar. These materials are then mixed carefully into a very dense, pastelike substance. The resulting clay is then molded into the appropriate form--a plate, teapot or ashtray--and baked at about 1,800'F in what is known as the first firing. This first firing process can last as long as eight hours, according to Bernardaud.

After cooling off, the plate or teapot is then dipped in a special enamel bath and immediately undergoes a grand feu, or second firing, at about 2,500'F, a process that can last as long as 30 hours. After the grand feu is completed, the decoration process begins: it starts with the application of a design motif, generally through a chromolithographic process, although certain valuable objects are normally painted by hand. In all cases, gold and platinum work on porcelain is hand-painted. A final series of firings, depending on the piece and the decorations, is then undertaken, at temperatures ranging from about 1,500'F to 2,200'F, notes Bernardaud.

Porcelaines Bernardaud's ashtrays are generously proportioned. The ashtrays also exhibit great personality, since many of Bernardaud's designs are inspired by artists like Kees Van Dongen, Raymond Loewy and Bernard Buffet. But many of the trademark Bernardaud designs come from the company's own atelier.

A famous example of Bernardaud's own work is its "Boston" design, a somewhat dreamy, but definitely jazzy, interpretation of the Roaring Twenties. Conceived and designed in Bernardaud's own atelier in 1925, "Boston" features a multicolored confetti look against an elegant gold background.

Echoing the sophisticated look of the '30s, Bernardaud's "Paris" design, shown in the ashtray format, reflects the Art Deco style inspired by the French artists Sonia Delauney and Fernand Leger. The ashtray's brilliant white background contrasts dramatically with exotic-looking women posed against a colorful background of powdered gold, soft coral and vivid turquoise.

Another ashtray, "Weiner," whose sleek, black-and-white design was inspired by the celebrated Viennese designer/artist Joseph Hoffman, displays a decidedly modernist look. Like "Boston," the Hoffman-inspired "Weiner" comes directly from Bernardaud's own atelier.

Jean-Pierre Hamard, artistic director of Bernardaud's atelier, oversees all the firm's design work, from the revival of historic designs of eighteenth-century French porcelain to new creative work by contemporary French designers like Catherine Bergen and Italian painters such as Giovanna Amoruso. In all, Porcelaines Bernardaud releases almost 20 new designs a year, not including special orders for clients like the sultan of Oman, Air France and foreign embassies, among others.

In addition to this special-order work, Bernardaud also produces a luxurious porcelain service for Cartier. One set includes a splendid series of ashtrays, one of which has an unusual but colorful hexagon shape, featuring a slinking black panther. The ashtray, which comes in three other sizes, is part of Cartier's exclusive "Louis Cartier" line of porcelain dinner service.

A classic nineteenth-century design was completed at the request of Empress Eugenie, Napoleon III's wife, a Spanish aristocrat, nee Montijo, who was known for her exquisite (and expensive) tastes. The porcelain set was commissioned by the empress in 1867 and designed in an English-style rose motif. The pattern, called Eugénie de Montijo, was a great success at court, and is still in use at Hôtel de Palais, originally Empress Eugénie's summer palace, and since 1883, one of the world's great luxury hotels. (See review, CIGAR AFICIONADO, June 1993, page 130.)

While the choice among cigar ashtrays has never been better, says Bernardaud, the occasions to smoke in a civilized way are becoming all the more scarce, both in the United States and Europe. Bernardaud, whose personal favorites include Partagas D4 and Punch Selection No. 2 from Cuba, explains, "Ashtrays are becoming harder to sell because you have this terrorism against smokers." Nevertheless, he soldiers on, providing some of the most sought-after ashtrays to be found in the world.

For Bernardaud knows, as do other confirmed cigar smokers, that after a cozy dinner at a cigar friendly restaurant or at home, there is no better place to cradle your cigar than in a beautiful porcelain ashtray. That's what the French would call living with style.

David L. Ross is the managing editor of Market Watch, a New York-based magazine that covers the alcoholic beverage industry.