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Cave 1From the end of the 18th century, liquor cabinets became an integral part of French society and travel, allowing dignitaries to spend long periods of time in coaches during their travels. Since then, perhaps no other luxury object has had as much success in the aristocratic circles of France as these liquor cabinets, manufactured with great taste and sophistication. Today, at the famous DROUOT auctions in Paris, these ingenious masterpieces created by cabinetmakers, which can include inlayed jewelry, are still at the top of the sales, attracting antique lovers not only for their utilitarian function, but also for their exceptional decorative beauty.
"Get rich!" - declared in 1840 François Guizot, French Prime Minister under Louis Philippe. The new bourgeoisie responded enthusiastically to this call by surrounding itself with luxury and prestige. The entire economic and social context of the time was conducive to the development of lush and exquisite interiors with beautiful objects, such as liquor cabinets. It is believed that it was Georges Sand herself who first introduced liqueur cabinets thereafter becoming the pride of masters and nobles.







Cave 2Liquor cabinets began to spread rapidly during the First Empire (1804-1815) and until the Restoration period (1814-1830) the shapes were austere and laconic, the only decorations being small marquetry inserts. Preference was given to the quality of production, rather than artistic dexterity. Later however, a number of liqueur cabinet manufacturers decided to improve the appearance of the cabinets. They began to decorate them in search of true artistic perfection. Emphasis was placed on the crystal glasses and decanters of the cabinets: they were equipped with eight, twelve, sixteen and even thirty-two square-section glasses with gold plating and, in general, two or four decanters. The famous French crystal manufacturers: Creusot, Saint-Louis, de Clichy, Sèvres, Pantin, Baccarat, provided their own brands, and competed with each other in refinement and infinite versatility of the crystal. It could be cut or engraved with etching, brushed, cut, twisted or gilded. Around 1835 - 1840, Bohemia crystal became fashionable along with coloured crystal which offered new shades.


Cave 3The July 1830-1848 monarchy and the rise of the great bourgeoisie led to an emphasis on prestige attributes. Thus, in aristocratic families, it became a tradition to present liqueur cabinets as wedding gifts as a testimony to the high status of the family. Demand for luxury products, including liqueur cabinets, increased dramatically at that time among the rich and aristocratic elite. This increase in demand lead to an increase in supply and the emergence of new models with highly sophisticated designs and shapes: oval, round, poly-loped, octagonal. At the same time, the abolition of rules pertaining to shops allowed entrepreneurs and cabinetmakers to create their own small workshops and produce real masterpieces - small pieces of furniture and chests of liqueur cabinets of very high quality. Thus, liqueur cabinets gradually acquired the function of being attributes of the French lifestyle, with no equal in other countries.In other European countries, items with similar uses, such as trays, cases or chests for decanters, possibly in mahogany, and often used on ships by naval officers did not constitute a particular form of household goods, nor were considered exquisite works of art. It is only in France that these objects of the aristocratic elite were considered real art or crafts products. Thus, in all European languages - Dutch, German, Spanish, English - these objects carry the French name - "caves à liqueurs".

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At the height of the production of liqueur cabinets, a large number of variants were created. The rarest ones were musical, mechanical, turning, papier-mâché, opal glass or crystal with a gilded bronze frame. The most beautiful cabinets were made from rare woods (rosewood, tuya, maple or sequoia wood). The masters of redwood added bronze decorations with rich golden engravings or painted porcelain inserts. This great delicacy revealed the astonishing decorative possibilities of precious wood. The decorations however were very sober, underlining the beautiful structure and naturalness of the wood. During the Second Empire (1852-1870), cabinet-making workshops underwent major technical changes permitting the usage of marquetry, brass, mother-of-pearl, turtle shell or ivory in cabinet-making, and the making moreover of the classical and very popular liquor cabinet of the Napoleon 3rd period in blackened wood.







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The pinnacle of luxury occurred when the decorated brass cartouche showed the customer's monogram or the coat of arms of the aristocratic family, proprietor of the cabinet. The national exhibitions organized in Paris from 1844 onwards, later "Exhibitions Universals", contributed to the development of new decorative styles and a taste for aesthetics and hence to a growing demand for artistic products. At the height of the liquor cabinet period, mid 19th century, Pierre Lambert Tahan became one of the most renowned and respected manufacturers: from 1844 to 1879, his workshops supplied liquor cabinets to the Royal Court and then the Imperial Court. Other great names in this field are Paul Sormani, Alexandre Vervelle and Alphonse Giroux.





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Simultaneously, production mechanization began, increasing production volume and therefore making these prestigious liqueur cabinets more accessible to all. To meet this growing demand, the product had to be developed not by a single master, but by about a hundred people. In the past, the master cabinetmaker created alone and by hand one box for one liquor cabinet. Suddenly, he had to manage and overlook about one hundred workers: draftsmen, carpenters, cabinet makers, sculptors, lacquerers, bronze foundry men, goldsmiths and installers. However, according to research from Helmersen's Hélène Gallery, the production of liqueur cabinets began to decline at the end of the Second Empire. Indeed, with the complexity of production and decorating work, it took hundreds of hours of work for these works of art to be of impeccable artistic quality. Despite the mechanization of some processes, their production remained extremely laborious and costly, and so they gradually begun to disappear, becoming a real rarity.

In 1900, a little more than a century after the advent of liqueur cabinets, they finally ceased to be produced and disappeared from use due to the required high standard of competency of the workforce and corresponding manufacturing process. Not before the 1920s and 1930s, did they reappear, thanks to crystal manufacturer Baccarat who produced a simplified liquor cabinet for leisure sailors, in the form of a portable chest with three jugs and glasses. However, the aesthetics and artistic virtuosity of the previous century were long foregone.

This article was inspired by publications by the Auction house DROUOT in Paris: Dimitri Joannidès - Gazette N°41 du 27 November 2009

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