There are copper pans, and then there are copper pans. The former may be functional, and be of recent, decent manufacture; a high price-tag piece of cookware that both performs and impresses. The latter is something a bit different and the subject of this article; bone-fide antiques, a witness to human stories, seemingly with their own story to tell. Often dirty, dented, unusable and hard to source in the first place, they are almost always an expensive restoration project, their appeal lying in something less tangible than functionality. Those most coveted and often sought out are the product of the great French ateliers Dehillerin, Jacquotot, Gaillaird and Mauviel; admired for their hand-worked craftsmanship and sheer weighty presence, despite often suffering from any number of the hindrances listed above when first ‘discovered’. Why bother sourcing them? Acquiring a matching lid and pan, let alone a matching set, may take years to achieve, and even then they will most likely need some degree of restoration to use safely in the kitchen. The answer is that as hand-made objects often do, they have ‘spirit’. They bear silent testimony to the relentless and irreversible passing of time. Born gleaming in the ordered social innocence of late 19th Century Europe, dulled by the tragedy of two world wars crashing down around them, only to be forgotten in the post-war years of modernity. Finally, the surviving pieces of good quality end up in the homes of those who discover and appreciate them, not just in Europe but in lands as far afield as America and Australia. Little pieces of turn-of-the-century France, scattered to the four corners of the world in our global 21st Century.
This assertion, that there is something ‘more’ to an old pan than a new one is of course entirely subjective, but it is relevant as it is what attracted me to the world of copper cookware in the first place, not least to my first acquisition two years ago in Paris’ labyrinthine Marche Aux Puces de Saint-Ouen. Glinting in the sun on top of a pile of very early Louis Vuitton suitcases, in the heat and dirt of a narrow street was a small 16CM casserole, stamped Grands Magasins Du Louvre, Paris (Pic.1). As a student of history, I had never heard of this great French department store, most of which are famous to this day, yet here was an item of great quality and beauty bearing this mysterious monicker. It was the form that was most attractive; delicate hand hammering and a lifetime of patination had created a dappled effect in the sunlight, and the handle was a work of art. I had never considered something so functional as a kitchen pan-handle could have so much attention to detail and craftsmanship lavished upon it; the handle emerged from the pan in a heart-shaped triple-riveted form, curving up in a swan-neck motion in smooth cast metal. It was these particular aesthetics that captured my attention and admiration, right through to the present day. I have since been collecting and studying these little discussed series of pans for two years now, having acquired around twenty pieces altogether and they have a story that is worth telling, which I shall attempt to do here for the first time.
To start-off, the series was made by the great Mauviel for the (then) even greater department store in the years before the first world war, from around 1880 to at least 1914, though also on a smaller scale into the 1920s. Nowadays the name Mauviel commands such respect and admiration in its own right that it is hard to imagine a world where Mauviel was just one of many decent ateliers de cuivre, desperately vying for the business of Paris’ great temples of commerce in order to survive. The past, as they say, is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Things really were done differently in late 19th Century Paris by the likes of the Grands Magasins Du Louvre, which is a topic worth exploring as it sheds some light on the nature of the copperware bearing its stamp. The great department store was located on Place du Palais-Royal, on the exact geographical centre-point of Paris, itself at the centre of one of the greatest empires ever to have existed. The tricolore flew from Suriname in the Americas to Indochina in the east and Paris was the primary recipient of the material trade and cultural enrichment that resulted. The city was overflowing with silks from the east and spices from the west, as well as a colourful and seemingly never-ending series of visiting representations from around the French Empire; combined with perhaps the most morally lax codes of behaviour in Europe at this point, this state of continuous constructive flux produced a boom in the cultural and pleasure industries. This imagery broadly sums up the world into which the Grands Magasins Du Louvre blossomed, a world of hedonistic satisfaction accompanied by an energetic atmosphere of financial, scientific, cultural and political advancement; a period retrospectively coined the beautiful era.
A blend of pleasure and commerce, public palaces like Du Louvre strived to bring together all the advances in material technology under a single awe-inspiring roof, in order to capture some of the immense wealth pouring into Paris from across the world. Grandeur was a natural by-product of the constant competition between the commercial giants in the city, as is aptly demonstrated by Picture. 2, which shows a flurry of beautiful hand painted horse-drawn delivery vans under the shadow of the Eiffel tower. No expense was spared, no-matter the nature of the object or its purpose, and it is this sentiment which is clearly at work regarding the design, form, and production of Du Louvre copperware (Pic.3,4,5). Shown in the below images is possibly the pride of my personal collection of Du Louvre; made by Mauviel in around 1890, it is a sauteuse with original lid in stunning condition. It exemplifies design considerations that are expensive and difficult to produce, such as the recessed lid flanges and triple riveted heart-shaped handles in smooth metal. This was copperware that was for more than just cooking; in a market with a healthy number of suppliers, pieces like this were tugging at emotional, aesthetic and even ideological heartstrings in order to gain market share. In fact, beginning at around this time across Europe was the Arts & Crafts movement, which rejected mass uniform production of goods and exalted the virtues of hand-made objects that demonstrated true craft. The extra cost was justified firstly by extra quality and also the reward of the social value of honest craft in the late 19th century consciousness. The example below, like almost all Du Louvre pieces I have encountered, bears the centre-point compass mark of the atelier signifying a truly hand-made piece of copper, confirming quite how expensive the lids alone must’ve been to produce. A Grands Magasins Du Louvre catalogue from 1911 lists the cost of the lid below at 6.25Francs; at a time when the nation was on the gold standard that was over a weeks’ wage for the average Frenchman. The pan was a whopping 27Francs, meaning the pan and lid together at the time of purchase would’ve had a modern day price-tag of around £500 ($650). These were statement pieces, they said something about who you were, your business, your ethos. They differentiated your café from the one across the street, the aesthetic details a potent symbol of your own success and ambition.
Another important development of which to be conscious when discussing French copperware of this era, is the growing market-demand for cookware generally that accompanied this period of development in French cuisine. The number of cafés, bistros, and restaurants emerging in Paris alone was astronomical, with the café firmly establishing itself as a social hub within every social strata in France by this time. Additionally, something not often discussed in conjunction with antique french copper is that France’s reputation as a nation of great cuisine was established in large part by the developments taking place in Paris, in this particular time period. The increased quality of the cookware and the newly available spices and ingredients from abroad essentially facilitated the birth of French cooking as we see it today. These two socio-cultural trends created a newly colossal demand for cookware, specifically copper cookware which was seen as the best cookware money could buy. The timing of this new demand was accompanied by advancements in production technique and technology in use by the ateliers de cuivres, which meant thicker copper, purer copper, stronger rivets and the employment of superior grade metals in the production of handles.
This brings us to the second part of this article on Mauviel’s Du Louvre copperware, a closer look at the pans themselves. The vast majority of examples I have encountered are pre-1914, truly artisanal pieces from the Mauviel workshop; they exhibit variation in the thickness of the metal (typically between 2.0mm and 2.4mm), slight inaccuracies in the alignment and orientation of the handles, and generally off-centre or slightly mis-struck stamps (indicating a hand striking). These indications of artisanal production can be easily seen by comparing the two casseroles in the image below (pic.6); the 20cm casserole has its handle centred slightly anti-clockwise whereas the 21cm casserole on the right exhibits a slight clockwise orientation on its handle. The 20cm is 2.3mm thick and the 21cm is 2.2mm, despite having a larger circumference. These inconsistencies permeate the entire pre-First World War output, giving the pans their character, charm, and unique aesthetic. The hand-hammering is also particularly satisfying on these early Mauviel examples, with a ‘uniformity’ of finish to this inherently unique aspect of each pan. These thicker, early examples also present a perfectly chamfered lower edge leading to a beautifully planar base, an expensive detail not present in the output of many other workshops even at this early date. I also coined the term ‘art-rivet’ to best sum up the beauty of the handmade and delicately rounded ‘buttons’ present on Du Louvre pans. Even Dehillerin was not concerned with beautifying the simple rivet at this point in time, preferring irregular but perhaps structurally stronger rivets for their usually even thicker pans. In fact, the beauty and delicacy of the rivets on Du Louvre pans may explain their upper-limit thickness of 2.4mm, as these aesthetically pleasing rivets with their small and perfect scale may not have been considered capable of carrying heavier grades of copper.
In addition to exterior finish, the pans of the Grands Magasins du Louvre are just as interesting on the inside. The 26cm sauteuse shown in pictures 3,4&5 is a recently re-tinned example, one which was found last year hanging in the back of a restaurant in Normandy where it had been since the 1890s, having been re-tinned many many times throughout its life. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But the two casseroles shown above in picture 6 are rather more interesting as they retain their original, experimental linings from the time of their sale from Du Louvre. The pieces in my collection which retain this original lining are an interestingly deep shade of blue-grey on the inside, demonstrably different to tin in appearance and texture. This unusual detail is evident from the pre-war catalogues of the Grands Magasins du Louvre (picture 7.); the pans made by Mauviel for Du Louvre were marketed as having the patented ‘Louvre Nickelée‘ lining, the precise constitution of which is unknown today but certainly a lining based heavily on nickel as opposed to tin.
The theory behind this unusual deviation from tin was, I suspect, that a nickel-based lining would outperform and outlast tin, which of course needs replacing at the expense of both money and time on a regular basis. The designers at Mauviel and Du Louvre may not have been entirely mis-guided in this experimentation, as I myself regularly use these pans with their original 100+ year old linings to cook even the most acidic foods with no issues at all. It certainly seems to be a harder lining than tin, and at such an age the metal seems to have stabilised to the point where it is extremely non-reactive with foodstuffs. It has been suggested in more recent years that nickel linings are not safe, and can make those who are sensitive to it very ill indeed, and surely there is some truth to this. However, I am sure that this particular lining containing nickel, the ‘Louvre Nickelée’, is quite different altogether; it appears to be too thick and resilient to be merely nickel plated in the modern manner, and its colour and thickness (also evident in picture. 8) lead me to believe that nickel is just one of many elements in this unique lining alloy. I strongly suspect that there is some silver involved in the mix, due to the similarity in behaviour, texture and feel to silver-lined examples I have handled, but this is of course nothing more than personal conjecture on one of the mysteries of this series of pans.
Moving away from the design peculiarities of the series, in my experience they actually perform remarkably well in an everyday kitchen setting. I gradually got rid of all my modern steel pans, replacing them size-for-size as and when possible to the point that I now use these antique copper pans for every piece of on-the-hob cooking. They are equally at home being used for high temperature confectionary making as for traditional slow-cooking of stews, sauces, and soups. They seem to have thicker bases than sides, which may contribute to the fact that I have never burned food in them yet (fingers crossed), even when left on the heat all day without anyone around to stir the contents. Perhaps this is another bonus of their unique lining properties.
The sauteuses are especially versatile; I regularly use them as frying pans and for risotto as much as for traditional sautéing whilst on the hob, however they also make admirable pies in the oven with the application of a pastry lid. The handles perform especially well as they do not leak or buckle at all when filled to the brim, their strength no doubt deriving partly from the triple riveting applied to even the smallest pans. Whatever alloy the smooth handles are made from was carefully chosen, as they do not get too hot to handle even after extended periods of use, which is a real blessing for those of us familiar with cooking with metal handled cookware. The seal between lid and pan-body is among the best I have ever encountered among antique French copperware; the sheer weight of the lids combined with the deep inverse flanges results in very little steam escaping from the pans, to the point that they more than hold their own in this area when compared to modern examples. The pictures below (pics.9,10) show a run of my smaller casseroles, all with original lids, that display the way in which the lids have been very cleverly designed to ensure a good fit. This consideration is not one which was abandoned in the material and resource poor France of the post war period; the two smallest pans on the left are 1920s examples, among the last copperware made for the Grands Magasins du Louvre, whereas the two on the right are much earlier. Yet, despite varying thickness of copper and manufacturing techniques, they retain the effective design features and quality handles discussed above across the entire timeframe of production.
Finally, a note on my statements and how these pans fit into the wider narrative of the output of the French ‘greats’. My experience with French copper cookware comes almost entirely from this antique series of pans from one maker in a narrow time-frame. I have found their average thickness of 2.0-2.2mm to be a perfectly workable everyday gauge of copper, despite the fact that many will say the thicker the better. Perhaps they are right, but as I have no experience with 3.0mm upwards I cannot say, or indeed draw comparison with regards to their performance. I will also say that despite the fact that these pans see everyday use, their primary attraction to me is the romance of their story and survival. With regards to care I clean them with traditional non-abrasive water-based copper polishes that rely on elbow-grease to make them sparkle, as opposed to chemical or physical attrition. It is a labour of love to do this to dozens of pieces, which explains why many of my pans are allowed to go all the colours of the rainbow!
I would also not necessarily recommend these pans above well-made modern equivalents, which are essentially more disposable and replaceable; antique copper which is by definition not replaceable needs lots of care and attention and I quite understand that this extra work is not for everyone. Indeed, many will favour function over form, but for me the two are inseparable conditions for copper; the kitchen is a hub of creation and this should go hand in hand with beauty, just as in art and architecture. Craft of this sort retains a special interest today, with the worn yet sturdy aesthetic of these hand-made relics of the past holding a deep allure. In addition to this I will be frank and say that I, among many others, simply could not afford to assemble a full batterie de cuisine of brand-new Mauviel copperware. It is, for some inexplicable reason, cheaper to buy genuine hand-crafted antique Mauviel, perhaps the result of an inconsistent supply entirely reliant on the tenacity (or luck) of the buyer in finding such pieces in the first place. I shall end this article with a montage of images of the pieces not used above in the main article, because at the end of the day it is how these pans perform on the eye, not the stove, that cements their importance to me.
I would like to thank VintageFrenchCopper for offering me the opportunity to share my area of copper-expertise from the UK with readers from all over the world, it is a great privilege to share your passion in this way. I keenly welcome any comments and questions anyone has, and am especially interested in any experiences anyone else may have with DuLouvre copper, as thus far I have found no one else who even has any.
-T.L., Edinburgh, UK. 21st May 2019.
Reader John Hershey sent in a photo of the baseplate of one of his Grands Magasins du Louvre pans to show what appears to be a silvery coating. It looks to me to be an unusually thick layer of metal. The portion that remains plated looks more mirror-like than other examples I’ve seen. This is definitely not Parkerization or anything like that, but more of a plating or almost chroming.
Folks, what do you think this could be?