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Vintage France-The First Great Innovators
By Joe Macey
The French Renaissance may have ended in 1610, but three centuries later the French spirit for originality and creativity can easily be seen in the earliest documented plectrum designs from catalogs dating back to1907. They place France as the first great innovators in the evolution of what would later become known as the guitar pick, but for this period of time are actually mandolin picks, or “mediators” as they are called in France. Looking back at this period shows the French were entirely original, would later be copied by the American and Germans, and yet remain to this day obscure if not unknown to most vintage guitar pick collectors. It is only by chance that their significance came to light a half decade ago here in the U.S., but that should not be too big a surprise considering our hobby had less than a dozen vintage collectors prior to Y2K.
The Summer 2009 issue of Guitar Pick Collecting is a good starting point for out trip back into time to check out the Fabulous French. In that issue, the storied history of mandolinist Ferdinand de Cristofaro is briefly chronicled and France is landed in the guitar pick record book as the country of origin for the oldest verifiable pick of any kind bar none, it is the oldest known celluloid pick, and oldest artist pick all in one. What a start!
Though documented information has yet to be located for the years between the Cristofaro of 1884 and 1907, the French apparently weren’t slacking during that time. The 1907 Jerome Thibouville-Lamy Mandoline Catalog (abbreviated JTL here on) has catalog numbering for picks up to 146! U.S catalogs around that period offered about 6 designs.
It is phenomenal to think that the French were that far ahead. In fairness to the Americans, the need for picks in France and Europe in general was necessitated by the mandolins well established popularity there ahead of it’s rise here in America. Larger offerings would eventually come to America, but not for another two decades.
While only 21 picks are illustrated in the JTL, at least seven other shapes unique for this time period are seen: 34, 40, 48, 58, 88, 112 and the 128 propeller shaped pick. The bottom of the page also shows the first known corrugated picks. All made of celluloid. It’s hard to imagine what the missing catalog numbers represented in terms of design, but this was a period of obviously intense experimentation with ideas tried, found to be lacking, then abandoned and quickly replaced by other designs. At least two of the JTL shapes remain in production today; the 3 in the U.S. and 112 in Japan. Also making an appearance is the first known European patented pick, “LeFix” from 1902 seen at the bottom left of 113, it is not assigned a catalog number. This unique gem of a piece is genuine tortoiseshell with a riveted ornate metal fixture for grip.
Prominent U.S. pick maker D’Andrea est.1922 would not be arrive on the scene for another 15 years and their 1928 catalog (no known catalogs from 1922-1927) would show a number of the same or strikingly similar designs that are seen in JTL catalog. The same goes for the Germans who also copied many of the French designs and took a real fancy to the propeller pick, producing it in at least 4 different sizes in both celluloid and genuine tortoise shell up until the 1970’s. There are actually very few extant JTL examples from this period but the catalog gives the collector a good idea of what to be in the hunt for.
Part II – The Jura’s and Hub’sons
1930 – 1990’s
The Jura’s are a very interesting group of picks that help cross the bridge between early French Mandolin picks, and modern French picks – they fill in the hole. Here again the French show their creativity in giving us five entirely new shapes new to us that is, they’ve been around for decades in France unbeknownst to vintage collectors here in the U.S. Continuing to throw convention to the wind, of all the beautiful color patterns and blends the Jura’s come in, none of them are offered in the standard 351 shape! While I believe there was many other non-Jura picks made by other manufacturers within France during this time, they have yet to surface, the Jura’s at least establish some ground for this period. They show a linage ranging from the 1930’s going up to the mid 1990’s, a period for which a huge gap existed in my own personal collection of French picks. “The Jura’s” are thusly named because the seller informed me they were designed by an artist in that particular part of scenic eastern France that borders Switzerland, my source did not know the artist’s name. I believe this mystery artist was involved in creating the artsy designs of the later Jura’s especially the laminates, but not the earlier non-laminates. There are a number of sub groups within the Jura family, the names of which I arbitrarily assigned based upon what their appearance might suggest. The single factor that connects all these sub groups of picks together into the Jura as a whole are two distinct shapes; small shield and large fish, that appear in the 1930’s era, and also in most all of the other color/pattern variations of the 1990’s era and points in-between. Establishing the beginning and end period for the Jura’s was an easy task but the pinning down middle periods for the sub groups is more challenging. The Roman/Surf Board picks are a shape that never appears in catalogs past the 1930’s and establishes the early period. The solid colors of these surfboards also come in the small shield and large fish shapes (not shown), shapes that occur later on in other color/pattern variations making a direct link between the two periods. (insert Roman Surfboard Photo)
The Jura’s appear as standard single layer picks that account for many of the older styles, and as laminates most of these being made later. The laminates are of several types and unlike any other I’ve seen here in the U.S. One type is super thick measuring over 2mm. They are constructed of a bottom layer, an ornamental middle layer, and a top finish layer. The bottom layer is usually black or white and appears to function as the base for the middle or ornamental layer, which contains the design. On top of that is a thick clear hard gloss protective finish. Another type is much thinner and appear to have a printed fabric that is imbedded upon a bottom layer with a thin, possibly sprayed on lacquer type top finish. They can be seen in the photo with the flowers designs. (inset Flowers Photo)
As I examined them there was no reason to believe the Jura’s were anything other than celluloid but just to make sure, I did a nail file test by rubbing the file against the edge of the pick. This method (credit Will Hoover-Picks) preserves the overall appearance of the pick with little compromise. The result in this case; negative - no camphor smell indicative of celluloid. I suspected I was not vigorous enough in my filing and tried again with a heavier nasty grit file that would surely rip into it a bit more – still no camphor smell. In fact there was no hint of any kind of smell at all - strange! I decided it was time for more drastic measures to see what the hell this material was. Knowing I would destroy one of these pricey rare Harlequin’s in the process of determining its composition, I felt none the less compelled to proceed forward, with pick in hand and lighter in the other, I put it to open flame. (insert Harl 1 Photo) It stubbornly ignited and burned slowly with curly black streaked vapor the smell of which was none other than rubber?! I took one of the earlier solid color 1930’s pieces and tried the test again - same result. During his 2011 visit, Brian Bouchard witnessed this same test result. This was scary because by sight alone I would have bet a dozen surfboards that they were celluloid. I knew rubber could be blended into multi colors but had been well informed by reputable sources prior that nothing except celluloid could be made into something as exquisite as the Harlequin’s. This information has now been proven incorrect. The Harlequins have a stellar iridescent flash to them when turned under light. (insert Harl 5 Photo) Each color flashing at a different angle with a sheen usually seen only in MOP (mother of pearl) celluloid or genuine MOP. What about the others designs, were they rubber too? I was not going to destroy any more of these French beauties, I actually do value my picks more than I do destroying them in the process of trying to find out what they are made of. (insert Banjo Group photo)
There are some Jura’s that are not laminates that qualify for the early 1990’s, these include the Snake Skin (Insert Snakeskin photo) similar to that used by Fender in the 90’s and Vanilla Fudge which I’ve also seen in the recent past. The Chocolate Lighting (insert Chocolate Lightening & Vanilla Fudge photo’s) strike me as older than those and the Bubble Gum mosaics are most likely from the 1970’s, looking somewhat but not exactly similar to some older Japanese mosaics from that time. (insert Bubblegum Mosaics photo) The Checkered and Harlequins I suspect are among the oldest, coming sometime after the solid colored roman shaped group, est. 1950-60. (insert Red Checkered photo) A number of the thicker non-laminates such as the one in the far right shell group appear as though they may have been stamped with a hot knife edged punch. (insert Mixed Shell photo) Their top edges smooth and the bottom edge straight cut at 90 degrees, a far cry from more common beveling seen by hand or from automated tumblers. Many of the laminates are not even remotely similar to any other picks I’ve seen from the vintage era such as the Bloody Mary, Mixed Fizz and Bling Blings. The Mixed Patterns show a bit of elementary design, some curling up at the edges, a few without full patterns and lacking the artsy appearance of those formerly mentioned. For this reason I believe they probably came first among the laminates as the process for manufacturing them was yet to be refined. (insert Bloody Mary, Fizz Mixed, Bling Blings, Striated Colors & Mixed Patterns photos)
The Hub’sons c.1976 are entirely unrelated to the Jura’s. They came in the 4 shapes and colors as seen in the photo. The material is extruded nylon. They are a thick pick with a substantial grip pad that has a sandy texture designed that is part of the molding process. While the shapes are familiar, they are all slightly larger than their American counterparts and the blue pick is the size and shape of a 352 on steroids! As with the case with most vintage picks, the company that made and distributed remains unknown. They are an interesting comparison to other nylon picks such as those made by Herco during the same era. (insert Hub’son and Hub’son Back photos)
Part III -
Now we come to the final offering from France. While the main focus of my personal collection and the articles I write largely deal with vintage picks, I do collect and admire other categories such as the various materials used to make them, artists picks, Japanese graphics and weird designs. There is a category unique among categories – the area of hand crafted picks. Each pick is individually designed and usually by someone skilled in the use of tools as well as possessing an artistic sense.
Eric Fueurmann is a craftsman an artist living in France who seems to have no limits with any medium. He’s made picks from acrylic, glass, metal, wood, carbon fiber and crocodile skin just to name a few. Many of his pieces have a style of their own or feature a contemporary theme such as Steampunk. Until I stumbled across his Steampunk creations, I had no idea what the word “Steampunk” meant or referred to and for the moment really didn’t care either. All I knew was that these Steampunk picks were a pleasure too look at, each one different from the next within this genre. They had a dreamy essence. There were gears, levers, cogs and other miscellaneous small mechanic parts in them for no practical reason, but purely for appearance sake. Some are imbedded entirely acrylic while others have a natural (usually exotic) wood base. As for the definition of the word “Steampunk”, I did get around to an even greater appreciation by finding out what it meant - it is the images and surrounding culture of real or imagined 19th century steam powered machines from the Victorian era and how they may appear in the context of fantasy and science fiction. Here are selected pieces from Eric’s imagination brought to life.
(insert all Steampunk photos)
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