Chandeliers - A Short History
February 03, 2020
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For centuries the chandelier has been the most iconic lighting form to grace our interiors, balancing a decorative and aesthetic function with practical illumination.   From its beginnings it was associated with wealth and power and a burning symbol of success and social standing. 

Primitive chandeliers, often little more than suspended crossed timbers with spikes to retain candles, came into use in Europe, by way of the church towards the end of the ninth century.  Their use gradually spreading to Royal Palaces and Castles, replacing the simple rush lights or torches previously favoured.     Developing in response to the type of fuel used and to the aesthetic and technological advancements of the day, the form evolved from its simple wooden origins into light holders of increasing complexity. 

Firstly, iron and brass chandeliers appeared with crown rings and multiple tiers, to maximise the number of lights. Then as a conjunction of their decorative and practical use, luxurious and costly materials such as silver, gilded wood and bronze began to be favoured.   An important early form of metal chandelier appeared in Holland and Germany during the fifteenth century, especially in areas around the lower Rhine near Cologne and in northern Germany, as well as in Flemish centres such as Dinant.   Made of polished brass or silver with baluster stems and large spherical globes, they elegantly reflected candlelight from their polished surfaces and became the dominant style for many centuries.  The simplicity of the design meant that many of these chandeliers survived the Puritan era in England, while more ornate chandeliers of gilded bronze, often with grotesque and cast decoration began to appear in countries such as France.   

Towards the end of the sixteenth century chandeliers began to be dressed with rock crystal, a transparent form of quartz, to refract and diffuse light and to create a sense of luxurious wonder. 

For thousands of years Rock crystal has been prized for its beauty and its remarkable ability to refract light.  When cut and polished, the inherent striations and inclusions of the crystal create a refracted light richer in luminosity than that of manmade crystal or glass.  These properties have made it highly desirable throughout history; its scarcity ensuring its use was limited to all but the most luxurious of decorative items.

One of the earliest recorded references to rock crystal chandeliers in France is in 1697, when Louis XIV offered twelve grand 'lustres' in 'cristal de roche’ to the King of Siam.  Louis XV also possessed a chandelier with twelve branches in his chambre a coucher at Versailles which had been delivered by Delaroue and Slodtz. This was commented on by the duc de Luynes: 'on a mis dans la chambre du roi, un chandelier en cristal de roche d'une grande beauté et que l'on estime au moins a 100 000 livres'.'  

The highest value for rock crystal was historically based, like diamonds, on two things - the weight and the clarity or limpidity of the crystal, the clearer the better, hence the phrase d'une tres belle eau.

The imitation of rock crystal began in Venice in the fifteenth century.  To do this, the glassmakers invented a 'crystal' made in reality of glass combined with a mixture of potassium, silicon, manganese and lead oxide heated to between 1200 and 1500 degrees.  This process was further developed in eighteenth century Bohemia and, subsequently in France with the Manufactures Royales de cristaux.  A true alternative was finally developed in 1676 by George Ravenscroft in England with the invention of lead crystal.  Easily cut and highly refractive lead crystal was even more transparent than rock crystal and led to a revolution in chandelier production. 

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the ease of production of lead crystal gave birth to spectacular all-crystal chandeliers, with even the metal stem piece encased.  An incredibly diverse range of chandeliers was now available with tent and basket forms and neo-classical examples made possible by the production of regular cut drops, spangles and festoons.  A golden age both in innovation and design the chandelier became as today the focal point of interior schemes with designers such as Robert Adam adapting and developing the form to fit within his interiors. 

In England firms such as Hancock & Rixon, F. &. C. Osler and Perry & Co produced fantastical chandeliers in cut-glass and crystal of astonishing quality and complexity.   Chandeliers become more refined and ornate during the years, with the development of new geometries and techniques of production.  The transition to gas and later electricity as methods of illumination did not harm the form of the chandelier but added to its evolution allowing for ever more sophisticated and ingenious designs. 

The high-status of chandeliers during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is confirmed by the important role they played as diplomatic gifts and their appeal as the must have luxury objects, by rulers and potentates across the globe.  One of the largest and most remarkable chandeliers in the world was by the firm of Osler, weighing 4.5 tons and adorned with 750 lamps, which was a diplomatic gift from Queen Victoria to the Turkish Sultan. It can be found today in the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.  

 F. & C. Osler & Company, one of the most successful and revered manufacturers of the nineteenth century, even opened showrooms and offices as far afield as India and many of their chandeliers still adorn its palaces and public buildings. 

In France the incredible skill of its metal workers and gilders resulted in the production of some exceptional chandeliers cast from the finest bronze in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.   These designs were often revisited in the nineteenth century and produced to incredible standards alongside innovative new styles.  Today these nineteenth century examples remain highly sought after both for their decorative appeal and their exceptional quality. 

In Europe great advancements in glass making were also being made and can be seen in the works of companies such as J. & L. Lobmeyer in Vienna and Baccarat in France who created exceptional crystal-glass chandeliers from the 1820’s onwards. 

Baccarat, perhaps the most famous of all glass manufacturers, began to flourish at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the effects of the Napoleonic Wars abated, and its reputation was consolidated by the official approval from various sovereigns and heads of state.  At the 1823 Exposition Nationale in Paris, it was Baccarat's crystal ware that Louis XVIII was said to have particularly admired, appreciating its 'beautiful workmanship'.  François-Eugène de Fontenay (who joined the company in 1841) discovered that by the addition of the nickel oxide in the manufacturing process, a perfectly clear product, 'crystal glass', free of discolouration and with qualities to rival rock crystal could be produced.  Baccarat's 'crystal glass' reached the highest level by the end of the nineteenth century.  Combining the finest cut-glass in the world, with some of the most stunning gilt-bronze work ever produced, Baccarat created chandeliers of breath-taking beauty, which graced the ceilings of Royal Palaces and the grandest houses across the world.

The chandelier may have evolved over the centuries, but its importance and prestige remain.  The very best examples from the nineteenth century have become rare and highly sought after, their quality and design having never been surpassed.  For period interiors the chandelier remains de rigueur, completing the decorative scheme with a sophisticated and impressive focal point, for modern interiors the addition of an antique chandelier can act as a striking and impressive statement piece. 

With one of the largest selections of fine nineteenth century chandeliers in the world, we would be delighted to assist you in choosing the perfect light for your home.  © Adrian Alan Ltd 2011

 Click here to view our collection of fine chandeliers.