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Razzle-Dazzle 'Em

In Paris, Baccarat Builds A Crystal Palace

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2004; Page H01


While thousands of tourists throng the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre here each summer day, Parisians with a taste for the finer things in life are steering visitors to a less known, more exclusive destination in the swank 16th arrondissement: the new headquarters of French crystal company Baccarat.

Founded in 1764, Baccarat crystal is among France's most prestigious exports. The crystal is sold at exclusive Baccarat boutiques around the world, as well as at high-end stores such as Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's, where their elegant wine glasses start at about $60 apiece and go up from there.

A rare black crystal chandelier in the private dining room at Baccarat headquarters. (Claude Weber - for Baccarat)

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The Baccarat mother ship, a chic crystal palace housed in a historic "hotel particulier," is designed to show off the company's distinguished history and herald a cutting-edge style for the 21st century. The mansion, built in the late 19th century, became in the 1920s the salon of Marie-Laure de Noailles, a patron of the arts partial to dramatic entrances and outrageous outfits, who threw parties for such notables as Salvador Dali and Man Ray.

The upper floors of the gracious building now accommodate more sober corporate offices. Downstairs, the most glittery draw for the public is a crystal museum showcasing chandeliers and goblets crafted over the centuries for kings, popes and the ultra rich and famous. A jewel-box restaurant called the Cristal Room, which seats just 50, has become a favorite among Paris foodies; those truly flush with euros might book the even more intimate pale pink private dining room crowned by a striking, almost spooky, black crystal chandelier. A shop on the ground floor offers the company's sparkling creations, from crystal earrings and cobalt blue wine goblets to breathtaking chandeliers.

The crystal theme park, which opened last November, went through an extensive renovation and redesign under the direction of French uber-designer Philippe Starck, master of illusion, who restored the space with his characteristic sly humor.

Inside, beyond the red Baccarat awning, visitors enter a cool hush of semi-darkness where thick red carpet twinkling with fiber-optics leads through room after room of crystal extravagance. At the entrance, a giant, fully-lit chandelier is partially submerged under bubbling water in an aquarium (a few crystals have been known to float to the bottom). A life-size arm made of crystal emerges from a mirrored wall holding an illuminated torch. Up a sweeping marble staircase to the grand foyer sit an Alice-in-Wonderland-size crystal chair and a massive 157-light antique Baccarat chandelier hanging above, turning slowly.

The Baccarat public museum and the flashy new headquarters are part of a global push to reflect an updated image for the 240-year-old company, which is now headed by Anne-Claire Taittinger, of the famous Taittinger champagne family.

"In the United States, I think we are still perceived by some as a stiff, traditional tabletop brand," says Anne Schuhmacher, Baccarat's spokeswoman in Paris, leading a tour of the mansion last month. "We want to project a look that is younger, more modern and gives a strong sign of this change."

"We wanted people to be able to touch crystal and see what it is all about," she continued. "And because we wanted poetry, dreams and magic, Philippe Starck was the obvious choice. He came here on his motorcycle, saw the house and fell in love."

Last year was not a terrific year for sales of luxury goods such as French crystal. But Schuhmacher says 2004 has been strong, especially in the United States, which makes up 21 percent of Baccarat's global sales. About 80 percent of Baccarat's French-made products are exported.

Part of the campaign for high-style visibility is to extend sales of crystal not only as a wedding gift staple but as a glam component of modern entertaining. The company has brought in contemporary design luminaries such as Andree Putman, Christian Tortu and Barbara Barry to enliven the collection. And in the 1990s, Baccarat introduced a highly successful line of crystal rings, bracelets and necklaces, which now accounts for more than 25 percent of total sales.

The main shopping room at the new headquarters, once the drawing room of the elegant old mansion, is now a study in contrasts. Raw concrete walls surround a vast illuminated display table with crystal legs and a mirrored top holding goblets, orbs, decanters and vases arranged in constantly changing tableaux. A VIP room is set aside for celebrity customers such as Mick Jagger or France's first lady Bernadette Chirac to shop privately for their crystal whims.

Up the staircase to the museum (which has an admission fee of seven euros -- about $8.75) visitors find cases displaying rare and even historic examples of Baccarat perfection: 12-foot candelabras ordered by Czar Nicholas II; engraved bar tumblers from Ari Onassis's yacht; plain crystal plates favored by Coco Chanel; wedding tableware made for Josephine Baker. And there are lavish crystal tables and chairs custom ordered by 19th-century maharajas that were delivered on an elephant's back.

The Cristal Room restaurant is attracting its own glitterati. The coveted stainless steel tables set with Baccarat candlesticks and glasses are booked about two months in advance.

For more information and hours of operation call 01-40-22-11-00 or click on www.baccarat.fr.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company