In Appreciation of French Enamelware

I was enjoying looking over all the fantastic offerings coming up at Colin Latreille’s April 1st auction when I came upon listings for 4 French enamelware coffee pots, and it brought to mind the many pieces of Enamelware we had brought here over the years of importing from France. 

Canadian enamelware was one of the first things Jeanine introduced to me as something she would like to collect, and although at first it I’ll admit it was kind of lost on me, it didn’t take me long to gain an appreciation, and find enjoyment in the hunt.

Enamelware represents a gentler, more Romantic time, when even the most humble item was beautifully made.  Less expensive and more durable than pottery, it served to some degree in the most kitchens and households  from the late 1800’s until the mid-20th century.  Much of it was plain white with a colored boarder,  especially in North America, but for a few cents more you could buy one with an applied décor. 

This was especially the case in Europe were factories in France,  Belgium, Germany, England, Poland and Denmark produced work that came in a wide range of Pastels such as Pink, Aqua, Light Blue, White, but also in vibrant Reds, Blues, Yellows and Oranges. There are many variations of Victorian, Art Nouveau or Art Deco designs.  Many pieces contained a shading of the design which was done by “aerography”, an early form of air brushing technique.  Some top-end pieces are even hand painted.  A few pieces are labelled on the bottom but most are not, so although with a little experience it is easy enough to distinguish between North American and European pieces, it takes a lot longer to learn what factory might have produced an unmarked European piece.  Weight is a clue.  Polish wares tend to be lighter.  Thickness of the enamel layers is another; and you would think when language is involved such as labels on storage canisters ,sucre, being French etc,  it would appear obvious.  However, some factories produced product for foreign markets so that really doesn’t prove anything.   In any case, I think the priority of most collectors is a chosen design, form or color.   Like any collection, at first you buy widely, whenever you see the stuff ignoring flaws, etc, but before long you start to recognize that you do not have an infinite amount of space to put all this stuff, and you begin to discriminate.   When Jeanine started collecting Canadian enamelware it was anything blue on white, with a pleasant form, in good condition. Eventually she narrowed her collecting to one blue and white pattern called “Bonny Blue” made by The McClary manufacturing company of London Ontario.  It looked great spread across a long shelf up near the ceiling running the length of the kitchen.  Then one day she decided that was it, and she sold it all off and started collecting Japanese biscuit barrels, but that’s another story and a woman’s prerogative.

McClary “Bonnie Blue”

So when we started our combination family visit/ buying trips to France, although our priority was pottery, we would also scoop up any fine examples of enamelware we would encounter.  And we would encounter it often, and most times it was dirt cheap.  It’s interesting to note how many great pieces we discovered in the basements of fine antique establishments.  Usually for not much money and thrown in a dark corner, but it illustrates, I think,  that even a top-end dealer cannot resist something so fundamentally beautiful even if it doesn’t represent a big return on investment.  Basically, it turned up everywhere.  At the regular weekly markets, in the “depot/vent” or as we call them consignment shops,  and at the “vide greniers” or “empty the attics” village yard sales.  And even as I mention in the dark corners of some top end shops.  It was fun to buy, and easy to ship,  and we always found it sold fast back in Canada, even though it was sold as European.  Not to collectors of North American enamel wear obviously, but to those who were starting to decorate in a French country style.

French enamel lunch tin

Then, inevitably, over time people’s taste starts to change.  In this case it was not here so much.  More and more people continued to be interested in all things French; but there in France.  After mostly  ignoring it for years the French themselves became interested in the “country look”, and so the enamel wear prices rose quickly and availability became scarce.

I still  love the look of the stuff, and the way it makes me feel.  A comfy feeling.  Grounded. I also noticed last year that availably and prices in the French markets seem more favorable,  but I don’t know about the market here.  I expect it’s a bit of a hard sell, and of course the Euro exchange is a big factor.  Still I’m going to be looking to see the results from Colin’s auction with a mind to future trips. There’s always a little room in the suitcase. 

Let’s visit a French antique market

FullSizeRender (2)The first Sunday of every month, there is an antique market in the town of Soumoulou, 10 km from the city of Pau in the South West of France. It goes from 8 am until 6 pm, and on average has about 100 dealers in attendance. Twice a year, in the spring and fall they have a large show which brings in about another 100 dealers. In this it is roughly equivalent to the Aberfoyle antique market held near Guelph, Ontario. Because my wife Jeanine is from this area, we have been visiting this market from time to time over the past thirty years, and like Aberfoyle we have seen changes. Primarily, a rise in interest and prices until about 2008, followed by a precipitous fall. There is still good attendance and sales taking place, but the packages being carried are smaller and fewer in number.
Still, it is a wonderful way for a person of my persuasion to spend a morning and so it was with great excitement that I woke, had breakfast, and got everyone underway, determined to get first dibs on anything special that may arrive. You’ve got to be on your toes. I remember a few years back being very disappointed missing out on a 100 years old terra cotta bust of an aristocratic French gentleman because I was still trying to figure out the exchange while a more astute dealer stepped in and bought it. Another time I almost cried because I was a few seconds behind a man from Provence in committing to what remains in my mind the most beautiful wrought iron butterfly panel which had graced the entrance of an old restaurant. IN A GADDA DA VIDA baby, indeed.


Pictured here are confit pots. They are a local redware which are glazed on the inside, and part way down the outside. They were used to preserve cooked duck in goose fat before the days of refrigeration. As long as the pieces did not touch each other they would keep for about three years like this, getting more tasty all the while. To my mind Duck confit is one of the most delicious things you will encounter on this earth. Be sure to try it, if you get the opportunity. Today, these beautiful pots are used mostly as patio pots.  At one point about twenty years ago you would do well to find one available because they enjoyed such popularity in the States that all of them seemed to end up there. These were offered from 45 to 65 Euros. Hard to transport or I would have been tempted. For the scores of them that we have carted back over the years , we have kept only a few for ourselves.

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These little birch-bark storage boxes were very tempting ranging from 35 to 45 Euros each. The dealer said he bought them in Biarritz, and thought them to be local, but I was uncertain as I have never seen other examples here. Lovely patina and in excellent condition. Looking at the picture I wish I had bought them.  I find I never regret the things I buy, only the things I pass on.



FullSizeRender (5)I have brought back several of these wine bottle drying racks over the years. People made and bottled their own wine here so the bottles would be cleaned out and dried to be reused.

I love the exchanges here between dealers and potential customers. It’s a more in your face, and no bars held. I overheard a woman who was negotiating the purchase of a vase say, “what, did you wake up in the middle of the night after dreaming that price”. The dealer laughed and a deal was made. We had a wonderful morning looking at everything. Most of it very different than the things offered at home, and we managed to find a half a dozen things that we could fit in out suitcases and bring back as gifts. There’s nothing I enjoy more that an antique market on a crisp spring morning. You never know what you will find.



Opening doors – a view from France

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the village of Amou

Now, after three weeks in this little town of Amou, in the south west of France, I can offer that my perspective on antiquity has changed, and developed by being here; and I find it invigorating. So much of this place remains essentially the same as it has been for a hundred years, and more. Old here is medieval, not circa 1900. Taking daily walks around town, you absorb the subtleties of age. You notice the details, and you feel that minus the cars, things might look much the same as they were in your grandfather’s time, or even his grandfather’s time. People just don’t change things unless they need to. A different perspective.

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door to a shop which sold horse meat

I would offer that this is a good argument for travelling to one place and staying put for awhile, as opposed to the way we travel these days which is the seven cities in seven day’s concept. Take a selfie in front of the Arc de Triumph, and move on to Brittany. Tomorrow we will be in Vienna. For example, you will see people in the Louvre walk by a monumental 18th century painting of a shipwreck; stop, take a shot on their I-phone and move on to the next. It seems the concept is just to document that you were there. What’s the point? Stop and smell the roses.


17th cent. door in Amou

There are many opportunities to buy antiques in France. Now in spring “Vide-greniers” or “Empty the Attics” occur at the weekends in several small towns and cities. If you go on-line and google “Vide-Greniers – les Landes” which is the name of this region, you will get a list of what’s happening around here. These are typically on a Sunday, and everybody participates, much like the town yard sales at home. There’s a lot of junk, but you can also find some real treasures if you are there early enough. Bigger cities often have a weekly “Marche d’antiquites”. We have found fantastic things by arriving about 6 am Thursday morning in nearby Bayonne . Again get there early or forget about it. By noon the bottles of wine and lunches are spread on the tables, and then it’s pack up and go home. Again you can find them listed on the internet. “Depot-Ventes are the French equivalent of consignment shops. Hey were very popular a few years ago, but I notice there are less around these days. A” Brocante” is a shop which offers antiques and vintage items. A bit of everything or anything which is collectable. There are also “Shops de Antiquity” which offer only older and usually more upscale items. Last but not least you have the “Salle d’expositions” which are the French equivalent of our Antique shows. Held either indoors in a hall, or outdoors like the Christie show. There is one this weekend in nearby Somoulu which we plan to attend. I’ll give you a report next Friday.IMG_1144