For many of us, the term “craft” brings to mind something old, out-dated, maybe even kitschy. You may think of one of those touristy stalls that you see while on holidays, selling tacky wooden figures, kitchen plates with Eiffel Tower painted on them or yellow amber jewellery that you would buy for your grandmother.
But instead try to think of the splendid dress Kate Middleton wore on the day she married Prince William in 2011. Think of a Loro Piana cashmere sweater that you buy as a great ‘investment piece’. Think Guerlain perfumes that are bought by generations of women both for their unique smell and beautiful bottles. Think Ladurée macarons that we all get when in Paris… No one would call them cheap or kitschy.
All these products have a certain aura, they symbolise tradition, exclusivity, quality. This is because they are based on unique craftsmanship that is cultivated for hundreds of years and passed from one generation to another. They represent passion, hard work, great quality and local production.
Think what would happen if the unique knowledge and skills behind these products were lost: how poorer our lives would become? This loss can happen and it already is happening. Do you know many young people who dream of becoming a potter (pottery maker) or a tanner (someone who makes leather from rawhides) or even a watchmaker? I actually don’t know any.
I bet many of young people do not actually know these occupations still exist or don’t think of them as a possible career patch. Is it because these professions are often seen (and often they are) a physical work, which is these days disregarded (not to say disrespected) by many? Is it because people think these occupations will disappear anyway in the digital era where only the virtual matters? Or maybe they do not realise that behind Kate Middleton’s wedding dress there are thousands of hours of manual work, which cannot be replaced by even the most technologically advanced machines.
In any case, this work and know-how are often undervalued.
Many companies invest millions to maintain and train new highly skilled workforce. Luxury brands often go to secondary schools to show pupils interesting career opportunities and explain that these traditional skills my give job security for many years to come. But it will continue to be a big effort if we do not manage to change the perception of these professions.
There are some valuable initiatives that contribute to promoting companies and people behind unique savoir-faire in different areas. Although they come from two different parts of the world and two completely different cultures France and Japan, they show many similarities.
The label of “Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant” which means something like a ‘company of living heritage’ is granted since 2005 to exceptional French companies based on traditional and artisanal know how and industrial techniques. Amongst over 1300 companies that received this label you can find Chanel, Hermès Sellier, Champagne Bollinger, Baccarat or Remy Martin. But there is also a wealth of small companies specialising in very niche products, such as decorative door knobs or smoking pipes, or in the production of materials like silk, wool or upholstery fabrics. What links them all is the importance of tradition but also dedication to innovation. They often reconcile heritage and new technologies, history and the future. Once the companies are selected, following very stringent selection criteria, the French government offers them support in terms of tax incentives, internationalisation, promotion and financing.
In Japan a very similar initiative operates since 1950. The Living National Treasure title (人間国宝 Ningen Kokuhō) is given to people who ‘preserve important intangible cultural properties’ or to put it simple, who are masters at their crafts that have high historical or artistic value.
The categories include individual, collective or group certification in various areas, such as performing arts (examples include the famous Kabuki theatre) as well as ceramics, textiles, lacquerware or doll making.The labelled artists earn huge recognition and almost a celebrity status in Japan but less so in other parts of the world.
What is interesting is that that in both schemes, the French and the Japanese, put a lot of importance of sharing the knowledge and the secrets of their craft with others. The companies of the Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant often open their ateliers to the public and educate young people. Dedicated routes are proposed to tourists interested in discovering inspiring places in many French regions. Japan also tries to promote their unique craftsmanship abroad. Visitors of the 2016 Expo Milano could admire examples of craft products in the Japan Pavilion. The Japanese association promoting the designated crafts is also planning to open dedicated shops in cities like Paris, New York or Dubai.
In today’s fast-paced world, craftsmanship is something that lets us experience and connect to cultural heritage through everyday products. It helps us appreciate authenticity, the value of things and their origin. It makes us more invested, more thoughtful. Lets give it some more appreciation.