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.
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.
One 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.
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.
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.
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!