C’est mon secret
It’s one of those secrets that is passed by word of mouth: a tip shared by a friend over a coffee in a Parisian garden, early in the morning when tulips bend to listen and before the crowds make them stand to attention. It’s one of those secrets that you really want to write down and broadcast, loudly, on the Internet. One of those secrets that I’ve been seeking out: the kind that comes loaded with talent and that leads to serendipitous moments of understanding on the I love Made in France trail.
. P for Product, P for Personal, P for Personalized
The story’s founding block
Kristine Kirchner is a discrete adventuress, and C’est mon secret is her latest embarkment. Although this particular story of hers has been building over time, since this Spring Kristine has been developing her new products with the great precision and speed that professional knowhow, matched with drive fueled by conviction and the kind of instinct that catches serendipity and folds it into coherence, can achieve.
Kristine’s C’est mon secret story starts with a specific need: a French professional woman’s need to spare her back – with elegance. She wanted a quality case to carry her computer and papers from meeting to meeting, and she was having a hard time finding the person to make it. She did find, of course, a master in the art of working leather in France’s historical center for textile, leather and silk manufacturing: Lyons, her home town.
Developing the product & building a team
Kristine’s briefcase was a success with all those who saw and touched it. When the opportunity arose, and with the encouragement of those who know her well, she decided to take her adventure a step further and to develop a line of fine leather accessories that would suit the needs and standards of people like herself who seek to match practicality with an elegance of one’s own and irreproachable quality – Made in France.
The most important step had been made, Kristine had met the keystone artisan who could make the accessories, and gradually other professionals that would form the team to make her dreams come true were introduced. Some of these are in, or stem from, her closest circle of connections and her family.
Kristine’s brother, for instance, is a book-binder and he held the key to making her products distinctly personal and personalize-able.
A number of years ago Henri Kirchner bought an atelier in the old center of Lyons, and with it a collection of gilding irons – some of which are over 100 years old as they have been passed down with the atelier to each new acquirer. Kristine’s great respect for her brother’s work, as well as her appreciation of these irons’ particularity, led her to involve Henri in her new project.
What more intimate and precious place to keep a secret, or share thoughts and moments, than a book? And what better way to personalize a treasured item to keep or to give than to have it gilded with a choice of rare and unique letters and images?
. P for Promotion
As any entrepreneur will know, once the idea is formulated, and those who can fabricate it are found, the P of Promotion comes into play. Again, a mix of serendipitous meetings and connections have allowed Kristine to build a talented team of collaborators: a photographer specialized in rendering leather at its finest, and a graphic designer who has creatively given C’est mon secret’s story visual coherence with discrete elegance.
Yet an essential factor to promoting with coherence is having a good story to tell and to illustrate – and C’est mon Secret has one.
. Cathedrals – Notre Dame de Paris
Kristine has ingeniously found inspiration in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and has created a story of her own that is as artfully crafted as the colorful stained-glass rosette of the cathedral.
The French title of the book is simply Notre Dame de Paris and as such suggests that the cathedral is the protagonist of the story more than Esmeralda, the bewitchingly beautiful dancing gypsy (see reference to exhibit Bohèmes), or Quasimodo the famed hunchback made deaf from bell-ringing.
Victor Hugo was passionate about architecture and the book that was successful with his contemporaries, is likely to have spurred a Gothic revival and cathedral-restoration frenzy in France that culminated with the efforts of Viollet le Duc towards the end of the 19th Century.
Hugo refers to the ideas that “printing will kill architecture” (This will kill that – Ceci tuera cela) and that “architecture is a great book of humanity” throughout the novel. Gutenberg‘s movable print (1450’s) brought about the vulgarization of ideas and language printed on paper at a time when cathedrals sprung up in Europe like the towers of Dubai. These could also be seen as the frames for story-telling to a large public – sort of like a massive 3D comic-strip.
An analogy could be made between Hugo’s reflections, which set the genre for Emile Zola‘s later books addressing the socio-economic changes induced by the Industrial Revolution and that refer to mass advertising, and the influence of the digital revolution and social media on today’s story-telling to the masses. I expect the novel may not be the vehicle of choice, though.
. The Serendipity trail
It just so happened that a week before meeting Kristine, I had walked by a place near Odéon, not far from where the story of my blog started, that I had made a mental note to visit. This was the Musée-Librairie du Compagnonage. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had registered that compagnons were linked to to cathedral-building and after our talk about Victor Hugo’s book, it made sense to go by.
As serendipity would have it, I had an enlightening conversation about the history and the spirit of Compagnonnage (an historic association of skilled artisans – original linked to building in the middle-ages) with the Compagnon who keeps the museum/bookstore, and other visitors. This man’s calm voice exuded the sort of quiet self confidence of one who is genuinely happy with his life’s work as carpenter and proud to be keeper of the stunning wood maquettes of staircases and roof-structures on show.
He gently impressed the importance of teamwork in the tradition of the Compagnons du Devoir: no one gets left behind and all hands are on board to help others achieve their task. It seems that young apprentices continue to knock on the Compagnon‘s door, maybe particularly in these times when unemployment runs high among the young, yet there is a dearth of skilled workers.
In my inquiry, he left me with a nugget: the name of an existing restaurant still run by the Compagnons: Aux arts et sciences réunis in the 19th arrondissement, which I look forward to enjoying. But the visit also left me with food for thought: I was keen to find out more.
The Fornay Library
I decided to renew my membership at the Bibilothèque Fornay to see what I could find there that would link what I had learned at the Musée du Compagnonnage with my blog quest on artisanship and entrepreneurship. The Fornay Library specializes in the Decorative Arts; it is niched in the Marais, and right behind the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The medieval building at 1, rue du Figuier (there really is a fig-tree there), was built between 1475 and 1519 by Tristan de Salazar (love that name) and was a private home to the illustrious. It fit right into the times of Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and Gutenberg, so into my story.
The Hotel de Sens was bought by the State at the time of the French Revolution and since then went through a rough time being used, amongst other things, as a laundry, a food-canning factory, or a hare-fur cutting factory (hare-skins make excellent glue) before being bought by the City of Paris in 1911.
Restoration of the building started in 1929 when a library named after the industrialist Samuel Aimé-Fornay in 1881, was transferred there from the neighboring Faubourg Saint-Antoine – a district where cabinet-makers traditionally grouped their workshops. The library had been established as a resource for illustrators, bronze workers and cabinet-makers thanks to Fornay’s bequeath. Initial restoration lasted until 1961, although the building is still undergoing the last touches of an ambitious second round, surely using the skills of master craftsmen from the famous Compagnons du Devoir.
I found what I was looking for: “Les Compagnons, ou l’amour de la belle ouvrage” by François Icher, an historian who works with the CNRS (national center for scientific research) and specializes in cathedral-building and the society that revolved around the building sites – very in-line with Hugo and Balzac.
The apprentice’s Tour de France
I was glad to have followed this trail as what I learned has brought coherence to much of what I have experienced since my own induction Tour de France, which also involved innumerable cathedrals – and adjacent cafés. This was as a Smith College junior year abroad student in 1988 – back when many of the historic monuments that are bright and shiny today were covered in soot thick enough to date back to the dark ages.
What I learned from Mr. Icher, in particular, provided me with another layer of historical and social context that leads to the notion of ‘savoir faire‘ and France’s reputation for quality and innovation, but also included just enough of a tinge of secrecy, or, more accurately – discretion – to weave it into this story.
Distinguishing discretion from secrecy, and ceremony from hocus-pocus
Although compagnon translates into ‘companion’ in English, and might refer to the spirit of brotherhood or the fact that they most often travelled in pairs, the Compagnons du Devoir probably share enough history and spirit to be associated with Freemasons. They don’t like to be associated with what the French call francs-massons though, as the latter’s reputation for funny handshakes suspected of covering insider business deals is not in line with the spirit of sharing that Compagnons wish to promote. I can relate to both as Smith, unlike many other American universities, prohibits Sororities, but also because my great-grandfather, an industrialist, was a Freemason – I’ve seen the apron.
Either way, both Compagnons and Freemasons are rooted in the times of cathedral-building: they were masons and carpenters who passed on their skills, as well as their dedication to the accomplishment of a task, from master to apprentice. Legend links the Compagnons to Salomon and the building of the Temple of Jerusalem.
A social network based on guiding principles
In France, these specialists organized themselves into groups representing various vocations and created a network and structure that allowed apprentices to perfect and broaden their skills by traveling from town to town (I wrote about chocolate maker Patrick Roger, Meilleur Ouvrier de France, for example, and our baker is a Compagnon who learned to make kouign-amann – the out-of-this-world butter and sugar puffed-pastry from Brittany – thanks to his Tour de France).
The Tour de France
Through their network, aspiring Compagnons were hosted in hostels held by their order (cayennes) – much like houses on American college campuses. Within their cayennes they found shelter, food, masters, work and social protection for themselves and their families. Trainees and confirmed members, had to strictly adhere to some fundamental rules and principles.
Shrouded in humility, and in the spirit of openness and sharing, these principles which still apply today, mostly convey respect, honesty, assiduity and neutrality. Apprenticeship, which started young (now 16) and lasted years (now 5) was concluded after presenting a chef d’oeuvre to demonstrate their acquired skill and ingenuity before they could officially be called a Compagnon du Devoir (some of these are exhibited in the Musée du Compagnonnage in Paris, though there are others such as in Tours).
I sense that there was a sort of schism between those who were called Master Artisans, contemporary of Marie-Antoinette let’s say, and who might have set up shop on rue Saint Honoré having paid dues of some kind for the label of Maître, and a Compagnon who would would have earned his colored ribbons (like Karate belts) doing the Tour de France. The lines between artisan, craftsman and ‘ouvrier‘ in France are beginning to form in my mind, though they remain somewhat blurred. Albeit, the structure of the Compagnonnage organization may arguably have been a reference for the foundation of some of modern France’s social and business structures.
Heritage that leads to innovation: a secret to longevity
The Compagnon‘s singing was almost reduced to silence during the Industrial Revolution when they were squeezed by labor unions as metal replaced wood for construction, and following the consecutive wars that decimated the male population. If Compagnonnage still exists today it is due to a continuing ability to fold a centuries-old heritage into a process of continuing innovation.
Compagnons, for example, were entrusted with the colossal challenge (or crazy project) of building the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 World Fair to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution. It is likely thanks to their expertise that the iron (cathedral-like) tower, which at 312 meters was the tallest building in the world for 40 years, still stands and is the world’s most visited paid site – Notre Dame de Paris being the first most visited monument in France.
An intangible heritage of worldwide value
Today, French Compagnons train and are hired all around the world for their skills, particularly in restoration. The transmission methods and values that have produced the finest skills over centuries through Compagnonnage are recognized by UNESCO as an intangible heritage. There are about 45 000 Compagnions du Devoir trained in stonework, woodwork, metalwork, leatherwork, textiles, and food.
. P for Pouch – and a brand name
I digress, but serendipity will have its way, and the spirit of the Companions who built Notre Dame de Paris, among many other cathedrals in France and in Europe emerge from the book that is the inspiration to Kristine’s story. Although her graphic designer has artfully hinted at the colorful stained glass window’s of Victor Hugo’s cathedral using the array of leather colors to chose from, the protagonist in Kristine’s story is not the edifice but Esmeralda’s goat Djali – the goat being a symbol of fidelity – or maybe its accessory. For this intelligent goat who follows her mistress and performs tricks, carries a leather pouch at her neck. The pouch holds a set of woodblock letters. When Fleur de Lys, who is jealous of Esmeralda, asks what is in the pouch, Esmeralda’s answer is: “C’est mon secret.“
The pouch has also been adapted to one of C’est mon secret‘s specialties: belts. Belts are made to measure and can be reversible thanks to a clever buckle, or double length to be wrapped and adorned with a travel pouch. Like any of the items to select from, the two-tone belts can be made using the colors of one’s choice.
This choice is hinted at by the double stitching on each item that marks they are hand-made, and like the key-stone in a vaulted arch, this double stitch, the keystone to Kristine’s story, is picked up in C’est mon secret‘s logo: it’s the appostrophe after the C’.
C’est mon secret really is multi-layered: the more time I spend with Kristine who kindly agreed to meet with me to tell me her story and to invite me to an event at the Hotel Concorde, where her purses are exhibited for sale, so that I could see how they are gilded.
People, attracted like bees to colorful flowers, raise an eyebrow at the price (they’re in fact excellent value for the quality and freedom of choice that we’re talking about) and keep the accessories in hand. This is surely due to the quality of leather, goatskin or calfskin, that Kristine and the artisans she works with have selected that is of French origin and tanned in France. The French love the empirical, but my celtic genes may forgive a hint of the mysterious: it seems that something magical happens at touch … it’s as though the softness and weight of the leather transfers, and voices (quite empirically) tone down to almost the murmur of a secret.
I have to admit that I gave in and walked away with a tassle and a small pouch that I had gilded with a very French-looking rooster. It now holds my I Love Made in France visiting cards. Like what the French call a ‘doudou’, I keep my blue purse at hand to remind me of my choices – somehow its reassuring. The envelope is already among my very small collection of cherished objects.
. P for Points of Sale
All the ingredients are there … but it’s hard to describe with words, or even cathedrals, what you can really only feel. C’est mon secret items can be ordered and an e-store is soon to be launched. Items are also available at the Hotel Concorde Montparnasse and at TAJ, the Made in France specialty store that also opened last Spring and is conveniently located between the Louvre, Palais Royal and Opéra. TAJ makes a point of selecting products Made in France that are affordable. It’s a great place to stop by for ‘a little something’ to give or to take home.