Great pieces of silver displayed on a refined table not only testify to the taste of the host and the art of the goldsmith, but also stand for a society as a whole, its ambitions and its historical significance.
Such was Emperor Napoleon's conviction that he placed large commissions with leading Paris silversmiths; and pressed his relatives, friends and allies to do the same. Thus, the style Empire was born which, unlike the Emperor's conquests, was to prove an immense and lasting success.
The silversmithing firm of Odiot played a determining role in the promotion of the new style. Its head, Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, was born (in 1763) into a family of Paris silversmiths dating back to the 17th Century. Taking advantage of the opportunities created by the new régime, he ensured the success of his firm through his exceptional abilities, not only as an artist and designer, but also as a social figure and enterprising businessman.
Over the last twenty years, French silver has enjoyed an extraordinary development and reached a degree of perfection difficult to surpass. No crowned head in Europe, no prince, no private person of wealth who is not eager to come and order his silver in France: thus read the Catalogue of Silversmiths' Work at the Exposition des Produits de l'Industrie Française held in Paris in 1819.
Maison Odiot had during the Empire already secured important commissions: the scepter and the sword for the Emperor's coronation in 1804; large table services for Madame Mère (mother of the Emperor), Jérôme Bonaparte King of Westfalia, and for Maximilian Joseph, King of Bavaria, all in 1806; a toilet set for the new Empress, Marie-Louise, and an extraordinary silver-gilt cot for the Emperor's son, both in 1810. Odiot's clients list of the Empire period includes all the great names of the new Marshalls: Bernadotte, Berthier, Davout, Lannes, Masséna, Murat, Ney, Poniatowski; and also Talleyrand, Madame Récamier and many other high dignitaries and social figures. Napoleons's downfall did not stop Odiot's success. Even larger commissions were placed by the new rulers of the day. King Louis XVIII, Tsar Alexander I, Prince Metternich, the Duke of Wellington, were frequent visitors to the Odiot establishment near the Palais Royal. Great table services were soon completed for two wealthy foreign clients: for Count Nikolai Demidoff in 1817, and for Count Branicki of Poland in 1819.
The rise of Maison Odiot was based, equally, on the impeccable technical quality of its production and the excellence of its design.
Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, himself a trained silversmith in the 18th Century tradition, took advantage of the new techniques to organize production in large quantities without compromising quality. Many such techniques were adapted from bronze manufacturing; they would hardly have been permitted by the strict rules separating the trades in the Ancien Régime, but were to become a lasting feature of modern silversmithing at the highest level. One such was "montage à froid", a method to apply reliefs on to flat surfaces not by soldering but through nuts and bolts; it was not invented by Odiot but systematically applied in the Odiot workshops; it allowed both versatility of design through interchangeable decoration, and use of the striking cameo-like effect typical of Empire style.
Odiot not only secured the best artisans, he also attracted the best designers. The role played by architects Percier and Fontaine in establishing the Empire style went far beyond that of drawing designs in the new fashion. These designs were based on original conceptions explained in Recueil des Décorations Intérieures (1812): underlying the obvious borrowing of Greek and Roman decorative motifs, are much more deeply-rooted choices regarding simplicity of form, importance of the material, respective roles of form and decoration, and subordination of composition to function.
Percier and Fontaine's conceptions are probably the first comprehensive formulation of modern design. As such they made the success of the Empire style a lasting one. Designs produced for Odiot by them and other designers (Cavelier, Garneray, Laffite, Moreau, Prudhon, ...) were to form Maison Odiot's most valuable assets, as clients would constantly refer to them for generations to come. Many of them, with the corresponding bronze models allowing exact reproduction, are still in the firm's possession today.
Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot himself had seen to it, that his best creations be preserved "in the interest of posterity" and "to serve the silversmiths' instruction". He selected thirty pieces of his past production, had them reproduced in bronze (one was in silver, so as to allow an exact perception of the actual effect) and gave them to the Musée des Arts Modernes situated in the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris; they were eventually transferred to the newly created Musée des Arts Décoratifs, where they are still housed today.
Some of the model pieces Odiot was planning to give to the Nation had been exhibited at the Exposition des Produits de l'Industrie Française referred above, in 1819. Odiot also exhibited major commissions, including two large table services made for foreign clients: that just completed for Count Branicki and another, larger still, made for the King of Naples. These outstanding achievements obtained him the gold medal.
Shortly thereafter, also in 1819, Martin-Guillaume Biennais, Odiot's great competitor, went into retirement. Odiot's supremacy became overwhelming and his success uncontested. Odiot services came to decorate the most refined tables in Europe: high-flying aristocrats such as the Duchesse de Berry, the Duchesse d'Orléans, the Duc de Luynes and many others, as well as nouveaux riches such as Salomon de Rothschild, Léopold Goldschmidt, purchased Odiot silver for it symbolised the high expectations of their lifestyle.
Foreign clients came to Odiot as well. The tradition started on a grand scale by Counts Demidoff and Branicki, both immensely wealthy and eager to emulate French life style, was perpetuated throughout the 19th Century. Odiot services went to Romania for the Royal family, to Turkey for Sultan Mahmud, to Egypt for Vice Roy Saïd Pacha, to Russia ...
Jean-Baptiste-Claude's successors, his son Charles-Nicolas (took over in 1827), and his grand-son Gustave (1850) continued the family tradition: they brought in the latest techniques, applied the styles of the day, but never compromised with quality and constantly referred to Jean-Baptiste-Claude's stylistic heritage. Great services delivered by Maison Odiot at the turn of the century for the Duc de Rivoli (1897) or the Prince de la Moskowa (1904) characteristically borrow most of their designs from the great Empire services.
The very last of the great commissions was placed with Maison Odiot in the aftermath of the First World War, as so often in the past, by a foreign client passionately infatuated with French culture and lifestyle. Ali Bey Fahmy was a young, extremely wealthy and Europe-oriented Egyptian. Le Prince des Jeunes (The Prince of the Young), as he was nicknamed in international circles, was to have a brief, but intense and extraordinarily refined life.
The service he commissioned from Maison Odiot in 1920 contained more than a thousand pieces complete with everything conceivable for twenty-four settings: from candelabra, wine-coolers, tureens, flatware, to toothpick stands and menu-holders. It even featured assiettes à marrons (chestnut plates) in the shape of a damask napkin folded and presented upon a plate, a rare model adapted from Russian tableware.
The service was to be a repertory of Odiot's best designs of the Empire period, including three of the models bequeathed to the French nation by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot: the wine coolers with faun handles and Centaur cameos, the double salt cellars with figures of standing women, and the mustard pots with figures of kneeling women. All pieces were made from the very models used at the time of the Empire and with exactly the same techniques. To these were added pieces for which types did not exist in the Empire such as champagne jugs, caviar coolers and the above mentioned "chestnut plates" which can equally be used for warm hors-d'oeuvres or for toasts.
The service was delivered by Maison Odiot in 1921, complete with its seventeen mahogany cases, at a total cost of FF 292,565. Its exceptional importance justified a special public exhibition held in a gallery Rue Royale, near the Odiot shop of Place de la Madeleine.
The Prince hardly had the opportunity to use his service for he died in 1923. The last of the great state silver dinner services to represent Maison Odiot's tradition also offers a touching testimony of the Egyptian Prince's dream of French culture and refinement.
A HIGHLY IMPORTANT FRENCH SILVER TABLE SERVICE FOR TWENTY-FOUR SETTINGS
Six nutcrackers, metal
Weight of silver: 18,600 gr. Ten oval dishes in pairs: 38 cm (15 in), 44 cm (17¼ in), 49 cm (19¼ in), 54 cm (21¼ in) and 69 cm (27¼ in) long Six circular dishes in pairs: 29 cm (11½ in), 31 cm (12¼ in) and 34.5 cm (13½ in) diam. One oval dish: 25 cm (9¾ in) long One silver tray: 45 cm (17¾ in) wide A silver centre-piece fitted with mirror in three parts: 119.5 cm (47 in) long Four silver stands with glass cups: 18 cm (7 in) diam. Two silver stands with glass cups: 22 cm (8¾ in) diam. Two large two-handled trays: 65.5 cm (25¾ in) and 77.5 cm (30½ in) wide Total weight of silver: 258,900 gr.
Hans Ottomeyer, Odiot und die Entwurfskunst des Empire, Munich, Kunst und Antiquitätenmesse, 1994
Jean-Marie Pinçon et Olivier Gaube du Gers, Odiot L'Orfèvre, Paris, Sous Le Vent, 1990
Henri Bouilhet, L'Orfèvrerie Française aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècle, Paris, H. Laurens, 1910