Craftwork with a strong identity...
Mountain populations have always worked at crafts or very light industry based on local products: wood and horn, iron ore, silver, copper, slate or freestone.
For a long time, life was one of economic independence, with well-defined seasons, where winter enabled the local populations to perfect their craft and then sell their production to passing visitors in summer.
Nowadays, many crafts are still alive and prospering in the mountains. Wood sculptors, ice sculptors, slate workers, bell foundry workers, clock makers, potters, lapidaries and stone workers share with us their passion and their love for their craft to perpetuate a secular tradition.
The best-known product of this art is the good old chalet. It’s quite an emblem! Built of pine, often with a stone base, it housed family and animals under one roof, usually with the hay stored upstairs. Sometimes, to make them warmer, the outbuildings were built around the house.
Wood is an all-purpose material. It is used for heating, and for making furniture and tools essential to mountain life. Today, most of the production is toys, but let’s not forget the niche articles like the famous “Opinel” knife and home and kitchen utensils.
Working with horn
Horn from locally raised cattle is mostly crafted in the Jura where it has given rise to an industry for the spectacle trade.
Forges and foundries
Working the iron present in the substratum has created a clock-making industry in the Jura. Bells, hand bells and cowbells or “s’nailles” in the local dialect, are still made in traditional style in a foundry in Chamonix. They are placed around the necks of cows, goats and sheep in summer, to indicate the position of the herds when they are scattered around the pastures. In winter, they decorate barns with pride.
The tradition of cutting stone has marked the valley of Haut-Giffre (Northern Alps) which is full of quarries supplying very hard limestone. To increase their farming incomes, men in the region worked the stone, making beautiful sculptures whose reputation travelled way beyond the surrounding peaks. The Auvergne uses the stone spat out by the ancient volcanoes: lava stone. Many craftsmen and designers have settled along the “chaîne des puys” to work this noble material, cut out of the lava quarry. The stone is grey, and has specific qualities, perfect for cutting, sculpting, engraving or even enamelling.
Several slate quarries have been exploited in Maurienne and Tarentaise since the Middle Ages. Slate was mainly used for the roofs of prestigious buildings (châteaux, churches and manor houses) because it was expensive to lay. It is shiny grey or black and its quality is excellent.
If the “Opinel” knife is a pure native of Savoy, the Pyrenees are not to be outdone, with their folding Ariège shepherd’s knife. This simple knife, with just a rivet and no springs, is part of a Pyrenees tradition that remains very much alive.
A team of ice cutters invites you for an unusual visit to the heart of a glacier to see an exhibition of spectacular sculptures. Thanks to their success, these ingenious entrepreneurs now have a full team of artists who invent “show” caves at the top of the ski slopes in 5 resorts: Serre-Chevalier, les Deux-Alpes, l’Alpe d’Huez, and Les Arcs). Some even remain in place in summer, in La Plagne and Tignes for example. Today these ice caves welcome approximately 100,000 visitors a year.