Sculptor, 93, still works in ivory

PARIS — Pedestrians on rue Bonaparte, lined with shops, might stop in front of a small shop displaying the discreet “Ivoire” sign, their...


PARIS — Pedestrians on rue Bonaparte, lined with shops, might stop in front of a small shop displaying the discreet “Ivoire” sign, their curiosity piqued by the old man at a workbench near the window. He might be mending an ivory necklace that had lost a pearl or the chip of an ivory jewelry box – practicing a dying art.

In Europe, Pierre Heckmann, 93, could well be one of the last ivory workers, “a sculptor who works with ivory”, he explains. He is sure to be the only member, and therefore president, of the Chambre Syndicales de l’Ivoire and L’Ecaille (tortoiseshell), one of the many French organizations of skilled craftsmen.

Mr. Heckmann said he learned to carve ivory from his father, who learned from his father. They used the same tools that now clutter his workbench and the machines that stand ready in his workshop, but the tools of this trade, from metal files to jigsaws, haven’t changed since the 1800s.

He may also be the last of his family in the trade. While Mr Heckmann’s grandson Nicolas, 39, now works with him, his duties are limited to sales rather than craftsmanship. And Nicolas’ son is only 10 years old, so his future is unknown.

Ivory, the hard white material of elephant tusks, has been prized since ancient times in treasures like the 35,000 year old Venus of Hohle Felsone of the oldest known sculptures of the human form, and dozens of ivory bracelets which British maritime heiress Nancy Cunard stacked along both arms in the early 1900s for her portraits of Man Ray and Cecil Beaton.

But as demand for ivory grew and elephant herds were decimated, countries took action, and in 1989 the international trade in ivory was banned, although authorities continue to fight. poaching and smuggling operations.

Restrictions in France changed Mr. Heckmann’s career. “I’ve done carvings for most of my life,” he said, “but a law from about five years ago prevented me from doing that. Now you can only sell carvings. ivory made before 1947.” So his work now focuses on repairs, like the damaged crucifix he was handling on a clear, cool December morning. Christ’s feet were missing then “I carved new feet,” he said, touching the individual toes of the arched feet he attached to the figure.

To make repairs – and he has boxes full of ivory pieces waiting for his expert touch – he has dozens of pieces of ivory, pieces left behind by his grandfather and father. Each is a surprisingly dull beige until polished to a shiny surface that exposes the creamy color underneath.

Mr. Heckmann’s family is originally from Dieppe, a port city on the English Channel. When his father was young, the town was still a center of the ivory trade, with ships bringing elephant and walrus tusks from Africa and Asia. As the port city began to decline in importance, the family moved to Paris in 1910, living and working at 57 rue Bonaparte. “I was born in this building,” Mr. Heckmann said with some pride. (Now he and his grandson live out of town, and Nicolas drives them to work. “I come every day except Sunday, I never miss a day,” Mr. Heckmann said.)

He studied sculpture at the nearby Academy of Fine Arts. “I practiced on hardwoods and marble, because ivory is very hard.” After school, he came to the family shop to follow his father’s ivory lessons. At 18 he made his first statue “of Venus, naked” and became a real ivory.

As the bells of the Saint-Sulpice church, just around the corner, rang 12 times, Mr Heckmann prepared to go to lunch, locking the front door and grabbing his grandson’s arm, a necessity since he fell down some stairs a year ago.

The Saint-Sulpice neighborhood has changed a lot since his family arrived, he says. “The stores were all selling religious items,” he recalls. “Now it’s just clothes,” and any place that doesn’t sell expensive fashion sells expensive chocolates and macaroons.

But some things haven’t changed. Turning onto Rue Guisarde, Mr. Heckmann pointed to the shop Au Plat d’Etain, which has been selling metal military miniatures since 1775. Across the street is Le Bistrot de L’Enfance, a restaurant where he’s been dining for decades and where the young staff members warmly welcome him with a glass of champagne.

Above the grilled fish he was talking more business, which seems surprisingly lively for such a small shop and such specialized craftsmanship. He said he got “about five or six customers a day coming for a repair and five or six to buy a piece of antique ivory”. Mr. Heckmann and his family have collected pieces over the years that attract a local clientele, such as Catherine Deneuve, and ivory enthusiasts from around the world.

After lunch, two customers stood on the sidewalk waiting for the store to reopen. One had a small statue of a Chinese peasant with a broken arm that needed fixing. The other was Salama Khalfan, a jewelry designer based in Paris and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She loves the store, she says, because “I find inspiration here.” She was interested in an ivory chess set; the shop has about half a dozen, ranging from around 2,000 euros to 5,000 euros ($2,260 to $5,655).

However, not all items are expensive. A small beaded bracelet cost €45, a modest amount reflecting that “ivory jewelery is not so popular these days; it’s outdated,” Mr. Heckmann said. This is why he also sells necklaces in lapis lazuli, jade, carnelian and other hard stones, all displayed in the window.

And the shelves and cupboards were filled with other ivory treasures: knobs, handles, cane and cane heads, belt buckles, door handles like the one on the shop’s front door – all with their own stories. , which Mr. Heckmann was happy about. to share.

He has no intention of retiring. “It’s important to keep working,” he said, picking up a rough-edged bracelet and gently beginning to file it down. He will therefore continue to come to rue Bonaparte—every day except Sunday.

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