PARIS -- The makers of many of France's most chic products -- gold pens, fancy perfumes, designer clothes, cognac and scores of other goods for the world's rich and status-conscious -- are passing from family ownership to control by larger enterprises.
Merging or taken over in the past few months alone have been such illustrious names as Louis Vuitton, the leather goods maker; Celine, the maker of chic shoes, and Chaumet, a jewelry business that once outfitted monarchs.
Those remaining are facing increasing pressures either to sell out or risk being left behind in the dust.
"The future of the family-owned business has to change," said Jean Bergeron, executive director of Comite Colbert, a trade association representing 70 French luxury-goods companies that together account for 20 billion francs ($3.33 billion) in annual sales. "They will be forced to become part of something much bigger."
Georges Hibon, president of St. Dupont, a maker of cigarette lighters and pens, said France's "l'art de vivre" companies up to now have been functioning in "a preindustrial era" in which many companies have had "an easy life."
The decline in the dollar, oil prices and tourism has hurt sales to traditional U.S. and Mideast markets, Hibon said, requiring many companies to join forces in order to boost global marketing and distribution efforts.
Bergeron said many of his association's members, some whose roots date back Napoleon's era, are being courted. "I'm always being asked if I know anyone who wants to sell."
And the companies are fetching premium prices, said Bergeron, who likened the situation to the interest showed in Silicon Valley companies a decade ago. "People are willing to pay 20, 25, even 30 times earnings to acquire luxury goods companies."
Indeed, mergers, sellouts and joint ventures in the industry have dominated business news in France this year.
"The goal is to build powerful luxury-goods conglomerates," Pierre Berge, president of Yves Saint Laurent International SA, told a business magazine this summer.
The recent restructuring of YSL demonstrates how high finance has permeated high fashion. Last November, Italian financier and Olivetti Chairman Carlo de Benedetti purchased a 37 percent stake in the haute couture house.
Then, De Benedetti's French holding company, Cerus, and YSL together acquired the YSL perfume business when it bought Squibb Corp.'s Charles of the Ritz Ltd. for $631 million. In June, it sold off Charles of the Ritz's mass-market product lines for more than $150 million to Revlon Inc.
To help finance the operation, YSL in December is expected to make its first public offering on the Paris stock market.
In the latest consolidation move, Louis Vuitton S.A. said it is in talks to buy Givenchy S.A., a money-losing Paris haute couture house. Vuitton, which bought the Givenchy perfume business last year, hopes to "give more power to the Givenchy brand" by reuniting the two product lines, a spokesman said.
Vuitton itself merged this month with Moet Hennessy S.A., which makes Moet & Chandon, Dom Perignon and Mercier champagnes, Hennessy cognac and Christian Dior perfumes.
Last June, the two companies announced they would join to form the world's largest luxury goods company, with combined sales of 13 billion francs ($2.15 billion) and a workforce of 10,200.
Besides Givenchy, Vuitton markets a line of leather and luggage under the Vuitton brand and Veuve Clicquot champagne. It also has a minority stake in Guerlain perfumes.
Financiere Agache, another empire-builder in the prestige product sector, is also moving fast. After acquiring the Christian Dior high-fashion business in 1984, Financiere Agache this year launched the haute couture house of Christian Lacroix, the star clothing designer he lured away from the Jean Patou house.
In July, Financiere Agache bought Celine S.A., the 42-year-old company known for its chic line of shoes and accessories. Celine's sales in 1985 topped 900 million francs ($150 million).
Meanwhile, Investcorp, a Bahrain-based company that has a minority stake in New York's Tiffany's, won a bid in July for the world-reknowned, but bankrupt, Chaumet jewelry business. Chaumet's two coowners, part of the ninth generation of the family that founded the business in 1780, were earlier jailed on charges of fraud and abuse of confidence.
Ventures have also included international joint marketing or distribution relationships.
In fact, the same day of the Moet-Vuitton merger announcement, Moet and Britain's Guinness PLC agreed to jointly distribute their premium spirits in the United States, Japan and the Far East. A similar accord was announced this summer between Martell & Compagnie, France's second-largest cognac maker, and Grand Metropolitan PLC of Britain.
Analysts say such combinations can help France's prestige companies gain industrial and marketing synergy while boosting their access to international markets.
For example, Moet Hennessy brands soon could have better chances of penetrating the Japanese market, thanks to Vuitton, which has already made significant inroads, said Susanna Hardy of the London brokerage firm James Capel & Co.
Mergers also could help some family-run businesses fend off raiders.
"Sure I was worried about our capital -- why shouldn't I be?" said Alain Chevalier, president of Moet-Hennessy, explaining one of the reasons behind his company's merger with Vuitton.
Comite Colbert's Bergeron said the recent flurry of consolidation is positive for his industry.
"These mergers involve good names and good management, and that creates a tremendous potential for success," he said.
But not all players in the industry are on the consolidation bandwagon. Jean-Jacques Guerlain of the Guerlain perfume house called the consolidation trend "a great problem." He fears that financial or industrial concerns without experience in the sector will move in on the family-run businesses and ultimately run them down.
Bergeron acknowledged a danger that buyers could be insensitive to the role played by founding families. "The families are part of the gimmick; they are the goodwill of the company," he said. "You can't gamble with the ingredients of success."