In Paris, the Practice of a Dying Art


Kathleen Beckett, The New York Times

Date Published

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PARIS: Pedestrians on the boutique-lined Rue Bonaparte might pause at a little shop displaying the discreet sign “Ivoire,” their curiosity piqued by the elderly man at a workbench near the window. He might be repairing an ivory necklace that had lost a bead or the chip in an ivory jewelry box — practicing a dying art.

In Europe, Pierre Heckmann, 93, may well be one of the last ivoiriers, “a sculptor who works with ivory,” he explained. He is sure he is the lone member, and therefore president, of the Chambres Syndicales de l’Ivoire and de L’Ecaille (tortoiseshell), one of France’s many organizations for skilled artisans.

Mr. Heckmann said he learned to carve ivory from his father, who learned from his father. They used the very same tools that now clutter his workbench and the machines that stand ready in his workshop, but then the tools of this trade, from metal files to jigsaw cutters, have not changed since the 1800s. 

He may be the last of his family in the trade, too. While Mr. Heckmann’s grandson Nicolas, 39, now works with him, his duties are limited to sales rather than craftsmanship. And Nicolas’s son is only 10, 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 Fels, one of the oldest known sculptures of the human form, and the scores of ivory bangles that the British shipping heiress Nancy Cunard stacked along both arms in the early 1900s for her portraits by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton.

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

The restrictions in France changed Mr. Heckmann’s career. “I made sculptures for the most part of my life,” he said, “but a law about five years ago prevented that. Now you can only sell ivory that’s been made before 1947.” So his work now focuses on repairs, like the damaged crucifix that he was handling one bright, crisp December morning. Christ’s feet were missing so “I have carved new feet,’’ he said, fingering the individual toes of the arched feet that he was attaching to the figure.

To make repairs — and he has boxes filled with ivory pieces waiting for his expert touch — he has dozens of chunks of ivory, pieces left from his grandfather’s and his father’s time. Each one is a surprisingly dull beige until it is polished to a gleaming surface that exposes the creamy color underneath.

Mr. Heckmann’s family came from Dieppe, a port city on the English Channel. When his father was young the city was still a center of the ivory trade, with ships bringing the tusks of elephants and walruses from Africa and Asia. As the port city began to lose its prominence, 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 outside the city, 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 Académie des Beaux-Arts nearby. “I trained on hard woods and marble, because ivory is very hard.” After classes, he would come to the family shop for lessons on ivory from his father. At age 18 he made his first statue “of Venus, nude” and became a true ivoirier.

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

The St.-Sulpice neighborhood has changed a lot since his family arrived, he said. “The shops used to all sell religious objects,” he reminisced. “Now it’s all clothes,” and any place not selling expensive fashion is selling expensive chocolates and macarons.

But some things have not changed. Turning onto Rue Guisarde, Mr. Heckmann pointed out 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 has been dining for decades and where young staff members greeted him warmly, offering a glass of Champagne.

Over grilled fish he talked more about business, which seems surprisingly brisk for a shop so small and a skill so specialized. He said he received “about five or six customers a day coming in 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 local customers, like Catherine Deneuve, and ivory aficionados from all over the world. 

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

Not all the items are costly, however. A small beaded bracelet was €45, a modest amount reflecting that “ivory jewelry is not so popular today; it’s gone out of fashion,” Mr. Heckmann said. It is why he also sells necklaces in lapis lazuli, jade, carnelian and other hard stones, all displayed in the shop window.

And the shelves and cabinets were filled with other ivory treasures: buttons, handles, the heads of walking sticks and canes, belt buckles, door knobs like the one on the shop’s front door — all with their own stories, which Mr. Heckmann was happy to share.

He has no plans to retire. “It’s important to keep working,” he said, as he picked up a bangle with rough edges and gently began to file them smooth. So he will keep coming to Rue Bonaparte — every day but Sundays.