The Fall and Rise of French Blacksmiths

Simon Marill whacks on the red-hot piece of iron with his hammer, sending sparks flying. With a pair of pliers he plunges the metal into the fiery oven. He then removes the iron and thrusts it into a bucket of water, causing steam to rise. With a little polish, his most recent work of art, a small snail, will be ready for sale.
Marill is a blacksmith, a job North Americans associate with horseshoes and swords. Marill is not employed at a castle, but rather out of a workshop in modern-day France. Ironwork is his job, art his passion. Like many people in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, he has combined the two.

Despite the years of decline, blacksmithing still thrives in modern-day France. For centuries, the population of the PyrénéesMountains exploited the region’s rich iron deposits. This came to a halt in the 1980s when the mines closed as a result of foreign competition. However, iron remains part of the region’s culture in the form of private ironworkers called ferroniers or forgerons. Many blacksmiths such as Marill still use good-old fashioned hammers and anvils to fashion the iron. French citizens see it as a regular job. Schools have well-equipped workshop where students can learn the skills needed to become ferroniers.

According to Robles Oscar, the treasurer of the preservation association of the Escaro iron mine, iron mining in the Languedoc-Roussillon region dates as far back as the to ancient times. Back in the antiquities people thought iron could ward off demons and heal illness. They admired blacksmiths for being to manipulate it.

By the 17th century there were over 60 sites in the Roussillon region that were exploiting the iron in the mountains. The iron was sent from the seaside town of Collioure to European cities such as Genoa, Venice and Barcelona.

On the eve of World War I, production levels reached record numbers. During World War II the mining companies had to hire many immigrants to reinforce the mining teams.

But after the war, the region could no longer compete with foreign mines, such as those in Africa, where costs were lower. The last mine in the region shut down in 1986.

When the mine in Escaro closed in 1953, the city’s population dropped from 600 people to 83. Now, the mine is a museum where tourists can look at unused mining equipment.

“Ever since the mining operation closed there hasn’t been any renovations,” says Oscar. “The village is falling apart.”

Catalan blacksmiths used to travel to Escaro for its iron and the town once housed four forges that produced nails and tools. These sites went away with the mine. But, this did not mean the end of blacksmiths in Languedoc-Roussillon.

A listing of blacksmiths in France contains 4,579 names, with 66 in the region of the Pyrénées-Orientales.

Marill, of the mountain town of Arles-Sur-Tech, operates out of his own workshop called Le Moulin. He makes most of his money with iron door hinges. However, his passion lies in art. Having taken courses in both blacksmith skills and visual arts, Marill can bend iron into art forms. He can make fireflies, snails and even a life-sized mermaid, which he sold for 500 euros. Marill is not the only smith whose trade is also art.     

An hour’s drive from the mountains you can find the warehouse of Sylvie Dabazach in the city of Perpignan. Her warehouse is called Art et Tradition. Her creations, which include an iron palm tree, are all her own. “I like creating things” she says, “and the metal has allowed me to give shape to my ideas and my drawings. My father was a ferronier and I have always liked this job.”

Despite the family heritage, her father did not want her to follow in his steps, because she is a woman. So instead she became an illustrator and a civil engineer. But eventually she became a ferronière and learned on the job.
Like Marill, she makes most of her money from traditional blacksmithing, which is to say iron objects like staircases and iron decorations. Also like Marill, she is not satisfied with that. “Every ferronier has an artistic side,” she says.

But she is happy to take on whatever jobs she can get. Dabazach has felt the same impact as everyone else with the global economic crisis of the past two years. “Before we just went to work, no questions asked. Today, we have work for a month, maybe two, but after that we don’t know what will happen.”

French students who wish to follow in the steps of Marill and Dabazach can do so at the Centre de Formation des Apprentis du Batiment des Travaux Publics ((Training Center for Apprentices of the Public Work Force) in Perpignan, a school with a program in metallurgy. Students, or apprentices as they are called in France, take general courses in math, French, technical illustrations, and practical metallurgy. The school is the largest of 103 blacksmith-training centers in France, with an average of 85 students every year.

“It’s a number that is relatively stable,” says director Michel Jean. “It doesn’t increase and it doesn’t diminish too much.”

In terms of employment, school officials are confident that apprentices will find jobs after graduation. Surveys show that almost 100 percent of their graduates manage to integrate in the job market.

“This reflects the general situation in France,” says Claude Blanc, a teacher in Ferronnerie d’Art. “There is a lack of qualified individuals in the ferronnerie sector…but here (in Languedoc-Rousillon) we are rather privileged.”

Not only is there a good job market, but the apprentices are paid 500 euros a month while they are studying. They are taught one week out of three and the rest of the time they work.

Just like Dabazach, the educators acknowledge the effect of the economy on their industry:
“In times of crisis expensive furniture is probably not a priority,” says Jean.

Despite the sexism Dabazach experienced with her father, the program has a high number of female applicants. Blanc and Jean believe it is the artistic side of the profession that attracts them.

In terms of the job sector, Blanc and Jean think there will always be a demand for blacksmiths in this region of France, due to the high number of centuries-old buildings. Modern cities like Paris may not need as many experts in the art of ferronnerie but ancient towns like the medieval city of Carcassonne will always need restoration.

“America doesn’t have any 12th century churches,” says Jean. “But we have many of them.”

About the Program

Fifteen college students came from North America to Perpignan, France, in June 2011 to produce these videos and stories. To find out more, read a welcome letter from program director Rachele Kanigel, meet the program faculty and explore the 2010 website.