As a young law graduate in 1980, fresh out of college in London and with images of those who resided in Les Deux Magots, Saint Germain des Prés and the neighbouring, Quartier Latin – as depicted by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald – whirling romantically around my brain, I went to live in Paris.
I was a reasonable French speaker from many family holidays in Charente Maritime. I suspect this area – which we all loved – was chosen as my Father’s family maintained that our roots were in La Rochelle and in an emigre Huguenot family who left France for England under the tyrannical reign of Louis XIV in the early 18th Century.
I smoked Disque Bleu and partied with the offspring of intellectuals, composers, film makers and the like it was an amazing experience but reality dawned that I needed to find an apartment and an income. Really quite sound thinking for a 21 year old, who looked about sixteen. I recently re-discovered my old Carte Orange, a monthly renewable season ticket for the Paris Metro. It carried a durable plastic ticket and a photo of someone who now resembles my son!
I had made a connection with the sister of a partner of a prominent Paris based law firm. Seeing him – who couldn’t have been more suave – at their fabulous offices on the Champs-Élysées, above what was City Bank, I was invited to become a Stagiair. A post often occupied by trainee lawyers in the French system of Advocats, an opportunity that I jumped at.
I was required to translate documents and generally undertake what we would call “outdoor clerk” duties. Registering documents at the Courts and the Companies Registry and hand-delivering mail to locally based clients.
I understood Intellectual Property Rights, and the firm who had hired me were specialists in the same area. They worked with an array of French and Paris based fashion business talent that was mind-blowing. I was on first name terms with Jean-Claude and his brother, Hubert de Givenchy – who knew for some reason that I tended to always arrive at his atelier when Ines de la Fressange was modelling for him! Karl Lagerfeld (who worked for Chloe at that point) was another who certainly knew my name, Pierre Cardin and the Vaudable family who at the time owned Maxim’s were all regular visitors to the offices.
One of the clear reasons why the client list was so special was the firm’s senior partner, an fabulous character and hugely proud internationalist, Rene du Chambray whose desk in his grand office was cluttered with signed photos of the famous including Coco Chanel and his late father in law, the war-time leader of the Vichy Government, Pierre Laval. His wall also had a painting of the close associate of George Washington and Andrew Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette, of whom Maître de Chambrun was a direct descendent.
Aside from his legal career, and very close to his heart, Maître de Chambrun was also Chairman of Baccarat Crystal between 1960 and 1992.
Before arriving in Paris I was aware of Rene Lalique and the sand blasted statutes for which he is famed that graced the bonnets of many classic cars of an earlier era, but I hadn’t understood the prominance of the Baccarat brand in Europe. Baccarat Chrystal dates back to 1764 when King Louis XV gave permission to Prince Bishop Cardinal Louis-Joseph de Laval-Montmorency to found a glassworks in the town of Baccarat in Lorraine (Eastern France). Until 1816, when the first crystal oven was installed, production consisted of window panes and mirrors. In the mid-1840’s Baccarat developed a range of glass “millefiori” paperweights that continue to today to be a true representation of Baccarat’s craftsmanship. Baccarat is also renowned for chandeliers, very elegant tableware – particularly beautiful champagne flutes – and perfume bottles.
On leaving the law firm I was called into Maître de Chambrun’s office, where the entire firm had gathered each holding a Baccarat Chrystal glass of champagne and I was presented with a very familiar red box that contained the cobalt blue Baccarat “Gemini” – my birth-sign – paperweight. Beyond special.
In 2005 Baccarat Chrystal was acquired by Starwood Capital Group and in 2012 Starwood announced that they would launch a chain of luxury hotels to be called “Baccarat Hotels and Resorts”.