Like enigmatic heiresses in an Agatha Christie mystery, these two sisters drop tantalizing clues about their history.
|Type||Two tin-lined stewpots in hammered finish with brass handles fastened with two or three copper rivets; fitted lids with brass handles with one copper rivet on each side|
|French description||Deux faitouts étamés et martelés avec anses en laiton en la mode Jacquotot munies de deux ou trois rivets; couvercles emboîté avec anse munie d’un rivet sur chaque coté|
|Dimensions||16cm diameter by 11.5cm tall|
(6.3 inches by 4.5 inches)
|18cm diameter by 13.5cm tall|
(7.1 inches by 5.3 inches)
|Thickness||1.5mm at rim||2.5mm at rim, thicker in base|
|Weight||1476g (3.25 lbs) without lid;|
1772g (3.9 lbs) with lid
|2408g (5.3 lbs) without lid;|
2730g (6 lbs) with lid
|Stampings||Λ [B within circle] C ; 16||Λ [B within circle] C ; 18|
|Maker and age estimate||Unknown, possibly Jacquotot;|
1915-1925 but possibly earlier
What initially caught my eye about these two pots was their size, and more specifically, their lack of it. Sixteen and 18 centimeters in diameter — just 6.3 and 7.1 inches respectively — is in my experience quite rare to find in the stewpot shape. (My smallest stewpot had been a 24cm Mauviel piece stamped for Verbeelen.) But I suspect that copper in the antique era was sometimes made-to-order, which explains occasional pieces like these in unusual sizes or configurations.
Looking more closely at them, I began to see that these are truly unique.
First of all, they are antique. They are dovetailed, meaning the chaudronnier used cramp seams to braze sheets of copper together to form the pots. This was the method of constructing copper cookware before lathes and steam-powered presses enabled sheets to be bent into shape. On these pans, this work was done by hand: a circular sheet of copper was cut to form the base, and a second sheet was formed into a cylinder and attached to form the body of the pot. You can see how this was done: a single brazed seam runs around the perimeter of the base and up the side.
The pots are not quite straight-sided, but taper towards the base. It’s a subtle effect and I struggled to capture it in a photo; the best I could do was to set each pot side-by-side with one of my trusty straight-walled daily-use saucepans. The sidewall of the saucepan drops almost perfectly straight until about an inch above the floor before it curves inward; on the left, the stewpots are never quite vertical and instead have an inexorable inward curve.
Each pans and its lid has the dot, a tiny circular depression in the geometric center. This is the mark left by the compass that marked the circular shape of each piece before it was cut from the copper, and is a sign of hand-craftsmanship.
The handles are beautiful. And mysterious. (And, also, gorgeously restored by Erik Undiks at Rocky Mountain Retinning.)
I’ve seen this style of baseplate with its ornate scrollwork detail on daubières stamped for Jacquotot, a chaudronnerie in Paris that appeared in 1913 or so. But the other elements of these pots point to an earlier era — the dovetailing, the sloping sides, and particularly the dot. By 1913, there was significant mechanization available in France to roll and cut copper sheets of uniform thickness and shape; I would be surprised to see a dot on a piece of this era, as there would be no need to hand-measure the pieces or to balance the pot to detect patches of unequal thickness. I also note that the 18cm pan is quite bottom-heavy, an artifact of hand-raised pans that rapidly disappeared as the French copper industry got access to machine-rolled copper. This unevenness would be an anachronism in 1913, particularly for production in Paris.
And the mystery deepens: these petite pieces have full-sized handles. They are lovely, but if I am being honest with myself, I must admit that I find them somewhat… large. The handles are well-fitted — there are no gaps or indications that these were attached by mistake — but to my eye they are out of proportion to the size of each pot. They resemble overlarge ears, giving the pots something of an air of jolie laide.
But what would the alternative have been? To scale the handles down to the pot would have also made the handle loops smaller, perhaps to the point where it would be uncomfortable to fit all one’s fingers inside. I suspect this is why pans smaller than 22cm or so reverted to stick handles, tabs, or some other attachment that could be grasped from the outside. That these handles are somewhat of a misfit for the pots suggests that they were a special order — a customer wanted small pots with big handles and the maker complied, even though the visual proportions of the pot to its handles were not exactly à la mode.
And that brings us to the deepest element of this mystery: Who would have ordered these unusual pots? This, my friends, is where we must engage the little grey cells. The only stamps on these pots are on the lids, and the letters don’t appear to be in the Western alphabet.
Here’s a closer look.
These stamps would have been applied for the customer. French chaudronniers in the Golden Age were exporting copper all across Europe, Russia, and the Middle East — let us consider three possibilities.
- It could be Greek. Two of those characters exist in the modern Greek alphabet: Λ is lambda, B is beta. The C could be the lunate sigma, a Medieval Greek form of the modern letter Σ, sigma. If it’s Greek, the letters would transliterate to English as “LS” with B in the middle.
- It could be Cyrillic. The Λ was an archaic rendering of the modern Cyrillic letter el, Л, while B and C are the modern letters ve and es, respectively. If it’s Cyrillic, the letters would transliterate to English as “LS” with “V” in the middle.
- It could be an archaic Cyrillic number. This is the wildest theory I have, but the circle around the B is what suggested it to me. Until the mid-18th century, Russia used a numbering system adapted from ancient Greek. Instead of Arabic numerals, they used letters, with circles and other marks around them as multipliers for large numbers. In this system, Λ represents 30 and C represents 200; ΛC together would be 230. The B represents 2 and the circle around it multiplies it by 10,000, together representing 20,000.
Would that Hercule Poirot could materialize to help me choose between these flawed theories! If it’s Greek, then why use the lunate sigma, which hasn’t been used since Medieval Greek? If it’s Cyrillic, why not use the correct symbol for Л? And if it’s an archaic Cyrillic number, then why use this rendering — already a century out of date when these pots were made — when just an inch below there are the Arabic numerals, 16 and 18?
Or is there some other possibility that hasn’t even occurred to me?
I don’t know. For now, these two mysterious ladies are keeping their secrets.