Stamps

Using typefaces to identify vintage copper

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I am a detail-oriented person. This is a post about details. 

I’m a student of the stamps on vintage copper pots because they’re one of the best ways to trace age and provenance. Copper has been stamped and etched and shaped for millennia, of course, but I’m speaking of the letters and numbers and logos on professionally produced French copper pots and pans.

It is thanks to the government of France that stamps are a reasonably reliable means to identify vintage copper pots and pans. In 1735, Louis XIV began issuing a series of laws to establish quality controls in the copper industry — the purity of copper and tin being a public health concern — culminating in a set of laws in 1745 that required a copper manufacturer to stamp a unique and traceable mark on its products.

Using typefaces to identify vintage copper
List of 67 chaudronniers in Villedieu-les-Poeles in 1863.

I think that old law is why most vintage French pots bear at least one stamp: the maker’s mark, a shop mark, a number, the initials of an owner. This held true for two centuries before slackening in the 1960s, when stamping dwindled to a generic “Made in France” and perhaps a store stamp or small maker’s logo. But by then, it wasn’t too difficult to trace a pot to its maker; after World War II, the number of French chaudronniers had dwindled to a handful of companies in Villedieu-les-Poêles, dominated by Mauviel, which began exporting en masse to the European and U.S. market in the 1960s.

But prior to that, from perhaps 1820 to 1930s, there were thousands — tens of thousands — of copper pots produced by the most skilled copper artisans in the world. Many of them are stamped with a maker’s mark, but many are not. Instead of the name of the house that made them, these pans might instead carry the mark of their diameter or the name or initials of their owner.

What I want to suggest to you is that these stamps carry information beyond the letter or number — that the very design of the character — its font — is a recognizable physical characteristic that we can use to track pieces from the same maker. By examining the font of a number or letter closely on a piece of known origin, we can recognize for the same font on another piece and perhaps identify it.

Using typefaces to identify vintage copperOne term I’ll use is serif: a little extra visible line at the end of the strokes that makes up the letter. In the diagram on the right, the red circles indicate the serifs; the other letter F, by contrast, is sans serif — “without serif” — sometimes shortened to just sans.

For this little experiment, I am making two key assumptions.

First, I’m assuming that coppersmiths stamped pots and not the customer. I’m assuming that coppersmiths added letter initials to a pot on request to identify it for a specific customer, not that the customer added the initials himself or herself.

Second, I’m assuming that coppersmiths used the same letter and number stamps over a period of time. I’m assuming that the coppersmiths had available single letters and numbers that could be individually struck into the copper, and possibly a set of commonly-used numbers — 26, 28, 30, etc. — to identify pans of given diameter. I’m assuming the coppersmith would buy a set of letters and numbers and reuse them for as long as possible until they got lost or damaged.

The most useful numbers for identification are those that denote the most common pan diameters. The range starts at 10 centimeters and goes up by twos to 50 (and beyond, for the really big ones), so the most useful numbers for comparison are 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and 0.

Known Gaillard

Gaillard uses a fancy serif font with noticeable stylistic flourishes. Compare the “J de R” letters against the oval maker’s stamp and you’ll see that the J’s and D’s are in an identical font.

The Gaillard 2 and 4 are very distinctive: the 2 has an upstroke at the tip of the baseline, while the crossbar of the 4 projects in a triangular shape. In the smaller version, this is visible as a projection that is noticeably thicker than the segment on the other side of the vertical.

Known Jacquotot

I don’t have many samples from Jacquotot pieces. Note the pronounced vertical stroke at the projecting end of the crossbar of the 4. The 0 is also fairly wide.

Known Dehillerin

Dehillerin also uses a serif font, but look closely at the crossbar of the 4 — the projecting tip is thin, thinner than that of either Jacquotot or Gaillard.

Unknown pans and speculative identification

40cm rondeau (my collection)

Based on the 4 I believe this is Dehillerin make. The stamp on my piece is positioned behind a handle, so I had to take the photo at an angle that foreshortens the characters, but it’s virtually identical to the 4 on the Dehillerin sample.

Unknown 30cm stewpot (my collection)

This is another Dehillerin, in my opinion. I think the 3 is pretty identical. The two Gaillard examples aren’t quite the same.

Unknown 42cm stewpot (Etsy)

I think this is another Dehillerin, again based on the 4. The 2 does not have the same uptick on the base as the Gaillard sample.

Unknown 24cm stockpot (Etsy)

I think this is Gaillard based on the distinctive 2. The crosspiece on the 4 also seems to have a thick projecting piece, as is the Gaillard style.

Unknown 24cm saucepan (Etsy)

This is Gaillard or I will eat my hat.

Unknown 24cm stewpot (Etsy)

A tough one, as the stamp is rubbed off a bit, but I still see a Dehillerin 4.

Grands Magazins du Louvre 26cm saute pan (Etsy)

Hard to say. The 2 is Gaillard-esque. The 6 is not quite Jacquotot style.

Grands Magasins du Printemps 21cm lid (Etsy)

I think the 1 is a Gaillard 1, but the 2 is not a very Gaillard 2, if that makes any sense. It’s definitely not a Dehillerin 1.

Unknown 22cm saucepan (Etsy)

This is Gaillard, in my opinion, but the 1 is more like a Dehillerin 1 than the sample Gaillard 1.

What do you think? This limited survey is by no means exhaustive, but I think there’s something to it. But I definitely need more samples!

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6 Comments

  1. I collect ‘Grands Magasins Du Louvre’ copper and know that they contracted Mauviel to make their ‘batterie de cuisine’. They easily have the most pleasing and heavyweight handles of any antique Paris produced copperware, though the thickness of the pans were made in grades; ‘Fort’ & ‘Extra-Fort’. Interestingly enough, the two different grades actually have different stamp designs; the ‘Extra-Fort’ pans are usually a minimum of 2.2mm and cook superbly, the name stamps are pleasingly deep and perfectly oval, whereas the ‘Fort’ examples are around 1.4mm and stamped with a larger but disappointingly shallow stamp. Both have the stunning handle design and ‘art-rivets’. I think most of Mauviel’s pre-war output was contract work of this type, as all examples I’ve seen actually stamped ‘Mauviel’ are post-war in date.

    1. That’s fantastic! What a great collection to have! I’m very interested in the differences between the stamps in Fort and Extra-Fort — I am always looking for visual details that set series of pans apart. It would not surprise me if the Fort and Extra-Fort production runs were done at different periods of time and perhaps even by different craftsmen; I don’t know enough yet about coppersmithing to know if different sheet thicknesses required different tooling on the production line, but it seems possible. In any event, congratulations on your collection, and thanks for sharing those valuable observations on the differences in the stamps!

  2. Thankyou! The degree of overlap in the production runs seems to be a bit of a mystery to be honest. One thing that is certain is that in 1911, and probably for many years before and up to the start of the First World War, both runs were being sold simultaneously (though not necessarily made by the same craftsmen).

    https://frenchkitchenantiques.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Catalogue.jpg

    Most of my collection are of the ‘Extra-Fort’ Grade, with the compass mark in the middle of both lids and pans, and showing all the signs of being late 19th-Century up to the start of the First World War in age. The quality, the patina, the weight, the sheer quality and thickness of the smooth metal handles all point to a fairly early date, before the ravages of war made material scarcer and scarcer. With the ‘Fort’ grade stamp I have three examples, one of 1.5mm with the compass mark and hand hammering, which I think is from the pre-war, pre-1914, ‘Fort’ range shown in the catalogue linked above. This ‘feels’ the same as the others and I would guess is still the product of the Mauviel workshop, like all the ‘Extra-Fort’ examples. Now, the two other ‘Fort’ grade examples, with the same shallow name stamp, are only 1mm and show no signs at all of a central compass mark, suggesting an interwar rolled plate, semi-mechanised production method. They very much align with other examples from the 20s and 30s, when France was poor and material more scarce. Incidentally, the Second World War completely killed the Grands Magasins Du Louvre which was half destroyed by a downed British bomber in 1943. However, the last year that copper pans were likely made for ‘DuLouvre’ was probably 1939, as all copper was requisitioned by Germany for the war effort following France’s defeat in 1940. In a way, it is quite nice to know that any given piece of ‘DuLouvre’ is at the very least from the 1930s, which is already some serious age, but with this particular make, if it shows the central compass mark it is beyond reasonable doubt pre-1914 and the product of the Mauviel workshop. Other makes seem to be harder to pin down in terms of date and workshop, but by the fates of war, economic history and changing production methods, ‘DuLouvre’ pieces are remarkably easy to pin down by comparison. Furthermore, nothing better than being able to confidently say your pieces are both Mauviel and genuine antiques over 100 years old. I would upload illustrative pictures of marks and details but sadly that option isn’t available in the comment box. I would be interested to hear the observations of other owners of ‘DuLouvre’, to see if they observe the same trends and patterns in marks and details.

    1. It sounds as though this line of copper is indeed something special. In particular, is the “queue Louvre nickelee” a specific style of handle? Is it nickel-plated iron or something like that?

      I would love to know more about this and daresay so would others. Would you be interested in writing a guest post with this history and your photos of your pieces? I would love to share this more broadly. Please let me know if you’d be interested in sharing more, and if so if I may contact you by email. Thank you!

      1. I would absolutely be happy to write a guest post on this specific topic, richly illustrated, and am happy to be contacted by email to sort this out. I’m in Italy this week so may not get back to you quickly but will certainly do so next week.

        As far as I understand the ‘Louvre Nickelée’ was an experimental nickel lining used as a tin alternative. The theory being, I suspect, that it would outperform and outlast tin. That theory msy not be entirely wrong, as I daily use examples with their original 100+ year linings to cook even acidic dishes with no issues at all.

      2. This is going to be great! When you’re ready, email me at admin at vintagefrenchcopper.com.

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