History

Antique vs. vintage vs. modern

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A reader asked me a great question: what do I mean by “antique” and “vintage”?

The conventional definitions for most collectibles like clothing, furniture, and jewelry suggest that “vintage” is 20 up to 100 years old, and “antique” is anything older than 100 years. But those rolling time spans don’t feel right to me for copper; I can’t imagine that the word “antique” could ever describe both a copper-steel bimetal pan from the 1980s as well as a hand-raised pot from 1850. There is so much change over the last two centuries in manufacturing and metallurgy, and the events that delineate the eras are fixed in time, receding into history instead of progressing with it.

This is how I see it.

  • Copper made before World War II is antique.
  • Copper made after World War II and up to the year 2000 or so is vintage.
  • Copper made after 2000 up to the present day is modern.

If you’re fine with that for casual use, I’m fine with that too. But it’s pretty imprecise. I’ve also defined a few more focused categories within each of the larger eras that capture the the inflection points that affect how copper was made.

For copper made… This was… So I’m calling it… … but I’d also consider it…
Prior to 1800 Before the industrial revolution Primitive Antique
1800 to 1870 When French copper cookware manufacturing gradually adopted industrial machine tools Early Industrial
1870 to 1939 The high water mark for French copper cookware in the grand hotels and restaurants of Europe Golden Age
1940 to 1960 The disruption and chaos of World War II and its aftermath War and Post-War Vintage
1960 to 2000 A period of reinvigoration, expansion, and innovation with new metallurgy Renaissance
2000 to the present When the industry settled into tin-lined and steel-lined copper Modern Modern

Mauviel is a special case. I’ve spent some time studying their production since the 1970s for my field guide to Mauviel and I can be more precise with the inflection points as I see them.

For Mauviel copper made… This was… So I’m calling it… … but I’d also consider it…
Late 1960s to 2007 The era of Cupretam, Cupronil, Cuprinox, Cuprinox Style, Cuprinox Gourmet, and Cuprinox Sur Table Mauviel Early Modern Vintage
2007 to 2011 The rebranding to Mauviel 1830 and the M’tradition and M’héritage lines Mauviel Transitional Modern Modern
2011 to the present When M’tradition became M’150/M’250 and the handles and rivets started changing across all lines Mauviel Late Modern

Yes, I realize that “Mauviel Early Modern” is nevertheless considered “vintage.” I’m sorry. A lot of this is more about how things feel to me rather than some kind of authoritative decision. I expect to come back to this and make some adjustments as I look over my copper collection and decide if these ideas are mapping well to what I actually see. Please bear with me, and as always, if you have comments and information I’d be really grateful to hear from you.


Early Industrial (1800 to 1870)

To my mind, the great divide in French copper-making was the advent of powered machinery. The industrial revolution in England at the end of the 18th century took some time to percolate through Europe, but by 1810 French factories in Paris had steam-powered rolling mills that could produce uniform sheets of copper, followed soon after by the machinery to cut and shape it. One group of early adopters was the chaudronniers — boilermakers — who put this technology to use to shape metal for the heating and plumbing systems in urban Paris. Consider M. Durenne, whose chaudronnerie at 9-11 Rue Amandiers-Popincourt in the 20th arrondissement earned special recognition in 1839 for his modern methods:

This clever boilermaker is well acquainted with the needs of an industry to which he has devoted himself, and has invented machines to make boilermaking operations easier, more precise, and more economical. A machine to make rivets, a machine to bend metal sheets to various dimensions, machines to drill holes, and reverberatory furnaces make up the auxiliary apparatuses of his manufacturing. All these machines take their power from a steam engine placed in the center of the factory.

But that was in Paris, the industrial center of the country. Change was slower to spread outside the city, but by the 1860s the chaudronniers were also manufacturing the batterie de cuisine — cooking pots and pans — that had previously been the domain of the poêliers who forged and shaped copper by hand. According to an account from 1898, the last true poêlerie in Villedieu-les-Poêles closed its doors in 1867. It was not that the art of pan-making was gone from Villedieu, but rather that the tedious brute tasks of forging, flattening, cutting, and bending copper could be accomplished more quickly, safely, and economically with machinery. However, other tasks — such as fitting and brazing copper sheets together to make deep pots like stockpots or daubières, smoothing the edges from cast handles, attaching handles to pots and pounding the rivets tight, hammering the copper to produce the martélage — could not (yet) be done by machine. This means that a French copper pan of this era could be made completely by hand, or by machine-shaping followed by hand-finishing.

But while a true hand-made piece may be instantly recognizable for its imperfections, there are a large number of beautiful pieces of this era for which it is difficult to say whether they are completely hand-made or instead machine-shaped and hand-finished.

Here are what could be considered, in my opinion, indicators of hand-crafting:

  • Irregular consistency of copper (i.e., bumpiness that is not an intentional martélage finish but evidence that the sheet was flattened by pounding and not between rollers)
  • Irregular thickness of copper, such as a base that is thicker than the sides, or inconsistent thickness around the walls
  • Dovetail seams indicating hand-joinery
  • The dot, indicating the copper sheet for the pan was hand-cut
  • Large rivets that were hand-made, prior to rivet-making machines that made rivets of a specific diameter
  • Perfectly flush interior rivets
  • Hammer marks on exterior rivets

But no single element on this list would determine that a piece is 100% handmade. For example, copper thickness alone is not a foolproof test of the degree of hand-craftsmanship of a piece. Must a perfectly uniform 4mm thick Gaillard rondeau have been made from a machine-milled sheet of copper? Must a Dehillerin sauté pan that is 3.5mm at the base but 2.3mm at the rim have been hand-raised? Of course not: a skilled craftsman can produce a beautifully uniform copper pan just as a machine press could thin the sides of a pan as it shaped the copper.

If I had a way to distinguish a 100% handmade pan from one that relied on some mechanized process, I’d use it to draw a line between pans made with and without machinery. But even if this were possible, I don’t know that the distinction is meaningful. I think one reason the copper industry adopted mechanization is because it really did improve the product; a fully handmade pot of this era may carry more historical and artisanal value, but it doesn’t cook any better than one made from milled copper. I’d rather assess a pan of this era based on its innate qualities — thickness, condition, dimensions, provenance, et cetera — rather than the degree of mechanization in its manufacture.

All this is to say that my “Early Industrial” phase encompasses pans that can be hand-crafted or hand-finished, and for pans of this era I’ve made my peace with not being able to tell the difference.

I have a few pans that I think are from this era.


Golden Age (1870 to 1939)

Yes, it doesn’t make historical sense to clump together the Belle Epoque and World War I, but I’ve taken as deep a look as I can into the characteristics of French copper production during this period of time and as far as I can tell it didn’t change very much. The great revolution in French copper-crafting was the advent of machine tools and the transition from fully hand-made pieces to machine-shaped and hand-finished. Once that transition was complete towards the end of the 19th century, French copper production seems to have settled into a groove.

The Belle Époque — 1871 to 1914 — was an era of peace and prosperity in France and Europe. This was the time of the grand hotels — the Ritz, the Carlton, the Savoy — and great French chefs such as Auguste Éscoffier who modernized French cooking methods into a national cuisine. To equip a modern professional kitchen with proper heavy copper, the hotels, restaurants, and royal houses of Europe turned to the Parisian ateliers (Gaillard, Jacquotot, Legry, Duval, et cetera), the chaudronneries in Villedieu (Mauviel-Gautier Frères, Lefèvre Frères, Lecellier, et cetera), and culinary supply stores like Dehillerin and Chomette-Favor.

And, thank goodness, on many occasions they stamped their pots. Studying these stamps and comparing them to each company’s history is how I’ve been able to assign rough time periods to my copper pieces: changes in wording and addresses may seem minor but they enable me to fix — or at least approximate — the time period when a piece was made.

It’s not a perfect science. Some of these stamps could predate 1870; within a sequence of stamps I don’t always know which came first and in what order. But I do believe that these stamps represent work between 1870 or so and the 1940s, and I use them to help identify unstamped pots with the same design characteristics.

 

I think the majority of my older pots and pans are from this era.

I have a few pans that I’m not sure are Early Industrial or Golden Age. What do you think?


War and post-war (1940-1960)

My current understanding is that when World War II commenced in 1939 the copper cookware industry in France came to a virtual halt. All metal resources (and men) were directed to support the Allied war effort, and then in 1940 when France was occupied by Germany, appropriated by German forces. While Normandy was the site of the Allied landing in D-Day, Villedieu-les-Poêles was famously spared by the quick thinking of its mayor; nevertheless, France’s economy was left in tatters and the market for copper cookware was feeble.

According to Mauviel, copper was so scarce after the war that Armand Mauviel converted the company’s manufacturing to aluminum for a period of time to help the company survive. But though the copper industry in Villedieu was diminished it was not destroyed. In 1947, Georges Pitel converted his family’s chaudronnerie into a machine shop called Multiform to shape copper for the cookware makers in town. Just two years after the end of the war, Multiform’s emergence suggests to me that cookware production in Villedieu was adapting and regrouping, and Mauviel, Lecellier, Havard, and Lefèvre continued. But in Paris, not every chaudronnerie survived the war; Gaillard kept producing copper but Dehillerin stopped making its own and turned to sourcing from others.

I have a few pans that I think are from this period of time.


Renaissance (1960-2000)

The recovery of the French copper industry began circa 1960 with the kindling of US interest in French cuisine and cookware followed by a wave of innovation and modernization.

Julia Child’s first French cookbook was published in 1961 and her TV series began in 1963; Chuck Williams began bringing Mauviel copper with a Williams-Sonoma stamp to the US in 1962. While other cookware stores in New York had been importing French copper for decades (Lamalle and Bazar Français come to mind), it was Williams-Sonoma with its phalanx of stores and talent for lifestyle marketing that showcased copper to best advantage to US consumers. According to Mauviel, this new market drove their expansion and transformation from an artisanal workshop to an industrialized manufacturer of copper cookware.

The second industrial revolution for the copper industry came in the late 1960s when advances in metallurgy and manufacturing enabled stainless steel, nickel, and aluminum to be bonded to copper. Mauviel began producing nickel-lined copper pots in the late 1960s and by 1985 released its stainless-steel bimetal line; Lecellier produced aluminum-lined copper in the 1970s followed by nickel-lined and stainless-lined in the 1980s. (In addition to tin-lined, Atelier du Cuivre currently makes steel-lined pans and I suspect they source them from Multiform.)

After a flurry of innovation and experimentation in the 1970s and a couple of decades of market growth, copper production across the major manufacturers seems to have stabilized by the year 1990 into two offerings:

  • Tin-lined copper ranging from 1mm service à table to 3.5mm extra fort
  • Stainless steel-copper bimetal at 2.5mm total thickness

As above, I end this era in the year 2000 (after which pans are “modern”) but I have to admit that’s a subjective distinction; a pan made about 20 years ago feels aged to me even if it is structurally identical to one in 2010 or 2015. I can be talked out of this if you have an opinion about it, but for now, this is where “modern” begins for me.

I have several pots from this era.


Mauviel’s eras

I studied Mauviel’s history and production pretty carefully for my field guide and I can pinpoint the timing of the various phases of design and branding after 1985.

Mauviel: Early Modern (Late 1960s to 2007)

I consider the start of Mauviel’s modernity to be the point when they began experimenting with new linings for copper. Up until the late 1960s, Mauviel was one of several Villedieu chaudronniers making tin-lined copper. But in the late 1960s they figured out how to apply nickel to the inside of a copper pan and suddenly had two distinct product lines. They called this new series Cupronil, and the tin-lined copper series that they’d been making since the early 19th century was dubbed Cupretam. Both lines were available as sur table at 1mm to 2mm with brass handles and smooth finish or extra fort from 2mm to 3.5mm or more with iron handles; Cupretam’s extra fort line was hammered to produce the martelage finish, but Cupronil was always smooth.

Mauviel began developing stainless-steel lined “bimetal” in 1989 and launched Cuprinox in 1995. Cupronil was phased out in the 1990s, leaving Mauviel with two main copper product lines heading into the 2000s: tin-lined Cupretam and steel-lined Cuprinox. In the early 2000s, they expanded the steel-lined series to Cuprinox, Cuprinox Sur Table, Cuprinox Style, and Cuprinox Gourmet, ranging in thickness from 1.6mm to 2.5mm. The tin-lined Cupretam series remained unchanged.

I know I have a few pieces from this era.

Mauviel: Transitional Modern (2007-2011)

Valérie Le Guern-Gilbert became president of Mauviel in 2006 and initiated a series of product and branding changes. In 2007 Mauviel became “Mauviel 1830” and its tin- and steel-lined copper lines were renamed “M’tradition” and “M’héritage,” branding changes that took years to percolate through Mauviel’s production lines and out to its retail partners. (As far as I can tell, the “Mauviel 1830” stamp didn’t start showing up on copper until the 2015 model year.) Mauviel also streamlined its steel-lined copper series, eliminating Cuprinox Gourmet, collapsing the remaining three Cuprinox variants into options within the M’héritage line, and reducing the choices of handle material.

M’tradition — the tin-lined copper formerly known as Cupretam — remained unchanged during this period. I’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between Cupretam pan from the 1980s and a 2007-2011 M’tradition pan because Mauviel seems to have kept its tinned lines relatively unchanged for decades.

I think I may have one or two pans from this era. All of mine are tin-lined, which is the series that Mauviel altered the least over the years (aside from reducing the scope of the line), so the differences between early modern and transitional modern are minimal as far as I can tell.

Mauviel: Late Modern (2011 to present)

The next big change was again for the stainless-lined copper: the advent of the M’150 and M’250 product lines, in actuality the re-naming and re-configuring of the existing M’héritage. For 2011, Mauviel restored choices for cast iron, brass, or stainless steel handles.

But the serious changes began in 2014 with the reduction in the number of rivets followed in 2015 by the progressive elimination of cast iron handles across all of Mauviel’s products. These pans are of course instantly recognizable by the rivets and handle designs, and in my opinion, significantly less desirable than earlier three-riveted pans with cast iron handles.

I don’t believe I have any Mauviel of this era.


Conclusion

This is just as much an opinion piece as a historical narrative and it was surprisingly difficult to write. I expect to come back and revise it as I learn and I hope you’ll forgive me for this. And as always if you know some history that would help illuminate this or can provide observations about pieces in your own collection, I would love to hear from you.

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