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In Limoges, France, the Bernardauds raise their children, entertain their friends and produce some of the world's premium porcelain
Connoisseurship starts young in the Bernardaud household. For five generations, the family has made porcelain in Limoges, France, and the next generation is clearly in training--especially during mealtimes at the family's 1920s mansarded town house or at the 200-year-old granite-walled farmhouse on the outskirts of town. The four-year-old twins, Charles and Emma, seem utterly at ease at the table. At lunch in the farmhouse, they deftly wield hand-carved ivory-handled forks and monogrammed napkins so long they look like skirts. Their American mother, Betsy, tells me that Charles once asked, at a family gathering in Illinois, "Mommy, is this my fish fork?"

The day's porcelain pattern is "Sparte," with minimalist gold bands--and there are a dozen other sets in the house to choose from. This delights Betsy, who confides that when she met her husband, Michel, in Chicago 10 years ago (she was managing a bistro, he was in town on business with Marshall Field's), she thought porcelain was only for special occasions. Michel proposed after five weeks of shared culinary adventures: he took her to the finest restaurants in the Chicago area, she dazzled him with such shows of expertise as ordering potato-vodka martinis to go with her sushi. 

These days, they're more likely to stay in than go out (there's another set of twins, two-year-old Lucy and Pierre, napping through lunch upstairs). In the antique-filled town house, inherited from Michel's parents, they give small, slightly formal parties. Their country gatherings are funkier, Betsy says; she and Michel bought the farmhouse from an aunt and renovated it, adding an all-glass kitchen wall that lets them admire the garden while cooking. In both houses, the couple's taste in dish patterns ranges from "Métropoles" (cityscapes around milky-white centers) to "Louvre" (all-white reliefs based on the museum's architectural details) to "Roses" (18th-century rose motifs). The menus favor what's locally available; when F&W visited the farmhouse, Betsy served leeks in a truffle-rich vinaigrette and roasted bass from the nearby Atlantic. 

The Bernardauds and I settle down to discuss the family business over coffee (served in "Ithaque" cups, with raised colored dots rimmed in gold). That morning I'd toured a Bernardaud plant and I'm still marveling at the rhythmic artistry I saw there. Machines handle the muscle tasks, pressing clay disks into embossed plates, pumping liquid clay into teacup-handle molds; kilns the size of trailer homes bake the clay at 2960 degrees Fahrenheit until the material turns hard and translucent. Humans handle the subtleties. Women smooth the insides of spouts with mini-sponges on dowels that look like lollipops; men sink bowls into glaze troughs after the clay's first firing, then swoop each piece through the air to even out the coating. 

Michel, who often brings home pieces he especially likes, talks about Bernardaud loyalty. "I owe a great deal to past generations," he says. "To the workers, many of them with us generation after generation, and to my ancestors--my parents, especially, given the way they were taken from us." Michel took over the business in 1994 after his parents died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. 

Partly in his parents' honor, a museum is being set up where visitors can see artisans making Limoges and tour porcelain exhibits with works from Bernardaud and other factories in the area. Companies started congregating in Limoges in the 1760s when a trove of an essential porcelain ingredient--kaolin, a highly fusible white sand--turned up just south of town. Bernardaud is one of 10 major porcelain makers left in the area, producing 40 percent of the region's output, or 5 million pieces a year--which makes the company midsize worldwide. (England's Wedgwood produces nearly 10 times as much.) 

Michel and I drive to company headquarters, where the archives show Bernardaud adapting to the avant-garde of every era: there are Art Deco patterns, for instance, as well as plates with splashy Fauvist flowers amid gold spears. Upstairs, designers dream up new lines (15 to 20 a year), and I see some custom commissions (15 percent of Bernardaud's business) from two top New York City restaurants: red-flowered vines on trellises for La Côte Basque; balloons, acrobats and circus animals by Adam Tihany for Le Cirque 2000. 

My tour ends with the hand-painters. Working at potter's wheels, they toss each piece with unnerving nonchalance onto the metal surface as they start decorating. (Porcelain only breaks when it's struck unevenly.) Michel bustles around the floor, asking questions, calling out requests, eyeing the finished pieces with desire, perhaps imagining how each might look on his table at home. 

The text was written by Eve M. Kahn, a cultural writer based in Budapest, Hungary.

Published April 1998
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