France's crafts in focus - May 2019
Versace family’s handcrafted and traditional tiles
Everything is handmade at Pierre Versace’s workshop, where specialist tile-making is a family affair.
Pierre has been in the tile business since his teens. He is now 70 and works with his sons, Roland and William.
William said: “There are seven of us in total – it is a family workshop. There is my uncle, cousin, and brother-in-law working with us.”
Pierre was born in southern Italy, then moved to France. He started working in a handmade tile factory in Antibes before creating his own company in Nice in the 1970s.
In 2008, his workshop was awarded the Living Heritage Company’s label and Pierre received the title of Master Craftsman.
William has been working with his father for 22 years but he feels like it has been longer.
He said: “I fell into it when I was a kid. To be honest, it is not an easy job but it’s nice and creative.”
Sometimes they work for months on the same project but they never really count the time as it is meticulous work which requires patience.
“Behind one tile there is an entire family and this is what is great, because each tile has a soul for us,” said William.
There are several steps involved in creating tiles.
They start from the ground, from mud and lava stone, and can end up in a kitchen or a bathroom.
The lava stone they use comes from Volvic’s volcano in Auvergne and was famously used to build the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand.
It is heat and water-resistant, which is good for kitchens and outdoor tables.
During the process, the tiles are heated in an oven at 1,000C. It is then that they reveal their true colour.
Sometimes there are “flawed ones” and they have to try again.
William said: “We only know how it will really look after getting it out of the oven.”
Then they can add effects on the tiles, make them shiny or matt, or change the colour again.
They can do anything with tiles, from their shape to the colour and the final layout.
“Everything is possible”, said William.
They can even paint pictures.
A professional painter comes in once a week to draw on the tiles, according to clients’ requests.
When the tiles are ready, they are put together.
All their techniques come from traditional handmade tile factories dotted across the south of France, notably in the Var department. They have various moulds and can create curved tiles and unique colours by mixing different tones of paint.
The workshop has a lot of foreign clients, especially in England and Denmark, who “love the fact that it is traditional and from Provence”.
William added: “Sometimes we have to go to set up the tiles [in other countries] but we can send them and they can choose another company to set them.”
The family has also worked for hotels, restaurants and art centres, such as the upmarket Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul de Vence and the villa of Eileen Gray in Roquebrune Cap-Martin.
Sometimes they have to restore instead of create.
“Some clients come with an old broken tile and tell us they want the same.”
They can never recreate identical tiles as William says “every tile is unique”, but they will make the same shape and colour, and nobody will really see the difference.
You can take professional courses to become a tile-maker, such as CAP carreleur-mosaïste or Bac Pro aménagement et finition du bâtiment.
However, it is a very practical job where you do not really need official qualifications.
“It is a job where we see more men than women, mainly because you need a lot of strength,” said William, and most of the time people “have to learn on the job”.