Eighteenth-century Paris, capital of luxury

Note: I am now ready to resume my “Smith in the City” series on Adam Smith’s fateful year in Paris (1766). Enjoy!

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Another aspect of Paris that must have caught Adam Smith’s attention was the market in luxury goods, a growing market with political and moral implications. [See generally Jennings 2007.] By way of example, the word “luxury” appears only six times in Smith’s 1759 treatise The Theory of Moral Sentiments; by contrast, “luxury” or “luxuries” appear over 60 times in his 1776 magnum opus The Wealth of Nations.

In summary, in 18th-century France a small number of workshops enjoyed royal monopolies to produce jewelry, snuff boxes, watches, porcelain, carpets, silverware, mirrors, tapestries, furniture, and other luxury goods. The crown also directly oversaw several royal manufacturers, including those of tapestries (Gobelins and Beauvais) and carpets (Savonnerie manufactory), and Louis XV had established a royal workshop to make fine dishes at the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres in the 1750s.[Louis XV would also established the first annual exhibition of porcelain at Versailles beginning in 1769, three years after Smith’s departure from Paris. See Antoine 1989, p. 566.] In addition to these luxury goods, clocks and watches became the newest luxury items. Designers such as André Charles Boulle made a specialty of gilded clock cases topped with Cupid, the god of desire, triumphing over a recumbent Father Time (see image below), and wealthy Parisians liked to be painted at their tasks with their elegant timepieces. [See generally Bremer-David 2011.]

Moreover, these luxury goods were not the exclusive domain of the royal family or the upper echelon of the French nobility, Les Grands. The chair-makers, upholsterers, wood carvers, and foundries of Paris were kept busy making luxury furnishings, statues, gates, door knobs, ceilings, and architectural ornament for the royal palaces and for the new town-houses or hôtels particulier of the nobility. Eighteenth-century Paris thus became the capital of luxury, and the epi-center of this bygone world were the hôtels particulier of the faubourg St Germain, where Smith resided during his time in Paris.

A typical day in the life of an 18th-century St Germain town-house was recreated at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2011 as part of an art exhibition “Paris: Life and Luxury in the 18th Century.” [The exhibition opened at the Getty on April 26, 2011 and ended on August 7, 2011. See Bremer-David 2011. See also Vanpée 2013.] The curator of the exhibition, Charissa Bremer-David, attempted to recapture a world subsequently overshadowed by the tumultuous history of the French Revolution. These hôtels particulier or stand-alone mansions were surrounded by gardens and contained many architectural innovations. Lofty rooms for formal receptions, the appartements de parade, were supplemented by intimate rooms for informal relaxation, appartements de commodité, where the rich exercised their politesse and turned their savoir vivre into a performance art. [To recreate a world when only firelight and candlelight illuminated a room, the lights in the last gallery of the exhibition were dimmed. In the exhibition book Paris: Life and Luxury, Mimi Hellman, a professor of art history, evokes “limited circles of flickering brightness surrounded by encroaching gloom.” Glittering enchantment was created by precious metals, gilding on furniture and china, iridescent threads on clothes and jewels on the body. Brilliant cut gemstones came to life in candlelight, spot-lighting the face of the wearer, accentuating what one commentator called “the sparkling fire of the eyes.” Quoted in Vickery 2011.]

This was the bygone world of prerevolutionary Paris that Adam Smith found himself in 1766.       

Works Cited:

Jeremy Jennings. 2007. The debate about luxury in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French political thought. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), pp. 79-105.

Janie Vanpée. 2013. Creating an online exhibit in a first-year seminar: luxury objects in the age of Marie Antoinette. ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 2013), available at https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/abo/vol3/iss1/4/.

Amanda Vickery. 2011. 18th-century Paris: the capital of luxury. The Guardian (July 29, 2011), available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jul/29/paris-life-luxury-getty-museum.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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