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Culture and Hiking
Sparkling forever, the crystal of Val Saint-Lambert
Meeting the crystal man
5 mins OF ART
The name Val Saint-Lambert resonates like the purest of crystal! When you enter "the Vale", you discover a place steeped in the emotion of history. For here resides the great epic of the glass-making industry.
As I approach the site, I enter another universe, as if the gates to a forgotten world have just opened before me. The gates to another era when this Dante's inferno produced glass and crystal creations. In 2018, the atmosphere at Val Saint Lambert is more soothing, one of fulfilment. In the vast workshops, now in ruins, the furnaces no longer burn to melt the glass and the workers no longer play with fire. As I progress, I remember the paintings of Constantin Meunier who so beautifully depicted the working class condition of the 18th century. This is where the artist found inspiration, 140 years ago, to capture the atmosphere of the Industrial Revolution that had begun.
Val Saint-Lambert was once an isolated microcosm where whole generations of workers lived totally independently. Babies were born here and people died here. Everything was designed for optimal productivity. As I approach the workers' houses adjoining the great halls, now deserted, I feel the weight of the history of these premises. I notice the different styles of architecture, each designed for a specific social class. The manager's palace affirms the status of its occupant, standing higher up to better supervise the entire workers' district. The exacerbated notion of hierarchy is obvious.
The industrial history of the site goes back to 1825, when two French engineers from the Vonèche glassworks purchased the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Val Saint Lambert. It is the perfect place. The abbey stands in the heart of a valley where the Industrial Revolution is in full swing and the banks of the River Meuse are dotted with collieries and blast furnaces for the metal industry. The first workshop was installed in the chapter house, where the furnaces were filled with coal and heated to temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Celsius. The crystal factory developed at an incredible pace. At the height of its glory, the establishment employed 4,500 workers who rubbed shoulders with the greatest master glassmakers. At times, production rates exceeded 100,000 pieces per day, before a slow decline into the extremely difficult times experienced throughout the heavy industries of the Meuse basin. Fortunately, part of the production was saved and a few expert glassmakers continue to perpetuate this living heritage.
A visit to "the Vale" is a surprisingly modern gesture
In a wing of the 18th-century abbatial palace, Cristal Discovery sheds light on the history of glass and crystal usage, via a discovery tour. I end my visit at the boutique which sells pieces manufactured in the only part of the factory that's still in operation. This prestigious site combines the luxury of crystal and the expertise of master glassmakers who still mouth-blow the glass before cutting it by hand. Their contemporary creations honour and perpetuate the savoir-faire of their ancestors. A visit to the Vale is a surprisingly modern gesture that isn't tarnished by nostalgia.
The crystal man
Although it's no longer a hive of activity, the Vale has retained its spirit, perpetuating the saga through the work of one of the last glassblowers, Jean-Paul Vandermeulen, who was already wielding his blowpipe at the age of 16. I go to his small, discreet workshop. A cast-iron table displays some old tools - pliers and scissors - a heritage handed down by a previous generation of glassmakers. "Every glassmaker has his own personal tools," Jean-Paul tells me.
A solvent such as soda ash or lye is added to molten sand to produce the translucent material we call glass. Before my very eyes, I see the matter transformed by an alchemy as ancient as time itself.
The heat is intense in the workshop of Jean-Paul Vandermeulen. The furnaces are maintained at a constant 1,000 degrees Celsius, the temperature required to work the molten glass. I can feel my face burning in the hot breath from the dragon's mouth. The infernal heat of the furnace is about to transform sand and silica into a smooth "honey". Jean-Paul plunges his blowpipe into the furnace to retrieve the molten substance and uses his breath to inflate and hollow it, ensuring the colour is evenly spread. Once out of the oven, the glass cools down quickly and gradients of colour are already visible between the centre and the sides of the orange sphere. By a turning action, Jean-Paul is able to keep it balanced on the blowpipe. I watch the precise choreography of his gestures, unchanged for 150 years. Nothing is left to chance when you play with molten substances. Then the master glassmaker places the paste in a mould, stretching it into a dazzling sphere. He works with a simple strip of paper mache soaked in water, shaping the glass into its final form. Then he plunges it back into the furnace, repeating the manoeuvre over and over again. A spectacle of the sublime. Afterwards, the item will be brought down to room temperature via a long, controlled cooling sequence that can take two or three days. The resulting piece is unique. Jean-Paul embodies a living memory, ensuring that the glass and crystal of Val Saint-Lambert will continue to sparkle forever.