In Paris, a Former School Has Become a Creative Hive

PARIS — On a frigid evening in December, about 30 jewelry artisans gathered over drinks to talk shop, as they have been doing once a month for several years now.

The venue was a courtyard and atelier in a sprawling four-level brick building with two wings and even windowless basement spaces, totaling about 32,000 square feet. Until 2006, it was a technical high school, but since 2015 it has been the creative home for about 100 artists, musicians, artisans, couture dressmakers and other makers.

It is called Le Doc, a play on its location on the Rue du Docteur Potain.

Charges vary, but most monthly maintenance fees are five euros ($5.30) per square meter (50 cents per square foot), based on the size of a member’s work space. Le Doc’s location in the 19th Arrondissement, on the northeastern edge of the city, certainly can’t be considered central Paris. But the amount still is in sharp contrast to the average €75 per-square-meter monthly rent for central Paris office space in 2021 and 2022 reported by the real estate agency Knight Frank.

Maude Bouhenic, an actress who was among Le Doc’s earliest resident artists, called the arrangement the result of a kind of détente between the regional government of Île-de-France, which owns the structure, and that of the city of Paris.

“It’s rare that the region gets involved in Paris, given the two don’t even operate within the same boundaries politically,” she said. (Île-de-France’s administrative council is dominated by conservatives while the city’s is liberal, led by Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a Socialist.)

Le Doc is registered as a nonprofit association, which, under French law, grants the group a measure of protection, even without an official lease. (In recent years, many disused buildings in the French capital have been transformed into arts venues.)

Ms. Bouhenic, who is Le Doc’s de facto programming coordinator, said the site’s robust events roster included exhibitions, screenings, concerts, artistic workshops and monthly “food and film” events (most recently about the metaverse), which has helped to reinforce its status in the area.

“It’s no secret we’re here, but it’s a juggling act,” she said. “We’re official and unofficial at the same time. We’ve agreed to leave if the building is ever sold or developed, but until then we’re on good terms and I think everyone’s happy that artists are working here, taking care of the place and making things happen.”

Even the mayor of the 19th Arrondissement, François Dagnaud, drops by for events.

“They really have managed the space well,” Mr. Dagnaud said, “and not only does it pose no problem, but they have also valorized the place and done something useful that’s high quality and positive for the neighborhood.

“It’s very important for the energy, balance and cultural life of our neighborhood that artists find their place. They’ve demonstrated how creativity can diverge from traditional circuits.”

Members of the Sprague jewelry collective, which began to use space at Le Doc in late 2020, are among the building’s most recent arrivals.

Founded in 2016 by a handful of graduates from the École Boulle college of fine and applied arts, Sprague was inspired — at least in part, members said — by the spirit of La Fête du Fer, a blacksmiths’ fair held annually in Paimpont, in Brittany, where artisans demonstrate their craft. The collective took form when the group was working on an exhibition about the Paris Métro, and the name comes from Sprague-Thomson, the company that produced the Métro’s first carriages made entirely of metal.

Though none of the founding members are still involved, Sprague caught on. Today, its community totals 300 members whose skills apply across the jewelry-making trade, including designers, gem setters, lapidaries, stone carvers and filigree specialists.

Officially, the December soirée was an informal, and belated, celebration of St. Éloi, a seventh-century goldsmith who became a Roman Catholic bishop in Rouen, France, and now is patron saint of jewelers (as well as veterinarians, horses and taxi drivers).

The party crowd included neophytes in their 20s and 30s as well as seasoned craftspeople — master jewelers, a blacksmith, a master watchmaker, a jeweler who worked with Loulou de la Falaise at Yves Saint Laurent — who mentor younger members. Some of those designers came with their latest pieces for the Christmas markets. Others brought favorite tools, like a file, vintage chisels or tongs, to be informally blessed by one another, a throwback to a time when guilds and master artisans would have religious consecrations of tools. Everyone brought wine.

As the boa-wearing performer Gertrude de Montparnasse sang chansons réalistes, or street songs, accompanied by an accordionist in the building’s courtyard garden, Charmaine Countinho, a new member of Sprague, unwrapped a dozen pieces made with black Tahiti pearls and arrayed them on a worn établi, or workbench, to show her peers. Another designer, Marie-Paule Promis, tried on one of the pendants while the two women discussed how to price Ms. Countinho’s pearl pieces and Ms. Promis’s Angel Callers — delicate bell-like charms made from upcycled silver — for a holiday market that coming weekend in the town of Vendôme, southwest of Paris.

Such a spirit of collaboration is exactly what Sprague’s members say they seek to cultivate. “We don’t have a lot of means and there’s a lot of catch-as-catch-can, but Sprague is a state of mind and a power of being,” said Giuseppe Lardo, the organization’s acting president.

With the advent of computer-assisted jewelry design, traditional craftsmanship techniques are endangered, he added: “Computers can’t replace the spirit and soul of a jewel that’s made by hand. We realized that, in a few years, there’s going to be a gap. So we wanted to create a space where we can work with our elders, preserve that heritage and pass the torch.”

Although his full-time job is with Cartier’s high jewelry atelier, Mr. Lardo led an effort in 2020 to raise €5,000 ($5,310) — and then directed the construction work — to turn a dilapidated 800-square-foot shed in Le Doc’s courtyard into an atelier for Sprague members.

“When I was a child, I used to build forts,” Mr. Lardo said. “It was exactly like that, but for grown-ups.”

Inside, furnishings include wooden workbenches salvaged from former ateliers; equipment donated by retired artisans; assorted tools, like an heirloom bellows provided by a Tuareg artisan who works in bronze; and a skull festooned with jewelry that was made by members. Sprague members pay €1 an hour to work in the space; using the laser soldering machine costs €3 an hour.

In one of the adjacent work spaces, glass cases displayed finished jewels, as well as examples of intaglios, filigreed pieces and objects made during workshops led by artisans from around the world; most are available for purchase. (All of Le Doc’s users may meet with private customers on site, but by appointment only.)

On a recent afternoon, Emma Joly, who helps to manage the Sprague space, welcomed a client to look over stones and sketches for a commission. Ms. Joly, a film editor, said that long hours in the editing suite had made her want to revisit a long-held fascination with jewelry making. Today, she edits part time and spends the rest of her work hours making jewels with Renaissance or Victorian influences.

Her first piece was a memento mori-style ring for her boyfriend, who had lost his father, but then she reworked the theme into a more life-affirming designs. For one American client who is an expert on Emily Dickinson, for example, Ms. Joly created a ring in silver, gold and rock crystal with a likeness of the poet’s famous white dress. For another, an art critic and blogger, she created a single earring with a sculptural pair of buttocks.

“I relate to jewelry the way some people relate to tattoos,” she said. “For me, making something by hand, from nothing, means drawing on inner strength, and that’s what I want to transmit. So that when people look at a piece, they’ll feel calm, or strength, or joy.”

Ms. Promis, a hydrogeologist by training, quit her job with the French energy company Engie to travel and learn jewelry-making crafts in Central Asia. She created her brand, called Promis.e.s, one year ago and works primarily in solid silver and gemstones repurposed from vintage finds. In the permanent Sprague display, her pieces keep company with others from Atelier Tiuh, a new line by Corina-Nicoleta Schiopu, who was born in Budapest but now works in Paris.

Expanding cross-cultural reach is one of Sprague’s priorities for the months and years ahead, Mr. Lardo said. Having held workshops with Tuareg and Burkinabe craftsmen, the collective has been talking with other artisans — Sudanese, Kabyle and Iranian — about conducting workshops and cultural celebrations. Most of these craftspeople have been traveling through or staying in Paris temporarily, and while Sprague’s organizers would like to bring others to the city or pay for the organization’s own members to travel, money is always a concern.

“The thing we all share is a passion for an art,” said Mr. Lardo as the party wound down around 11 p.m. “When you have that, it erases all the other differences. There’s something magical here.”

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