Caroline Delareux is a blacksmith who comes from a family who have been working at the same forge in St Jean de la Motte, Sarthe, for five generations (k-del.fr). Her great-great grandfather started in 1882.
How did you get into the family business?
When I was young I was never allowed to go into the workshop. My father is a quiet man and did not talk much about his work in the home.
I used to watch him through the window and it fascinated me, but at first I didn’t think about it as a job for me. My family did not push me in that direction because I was a girl and it was thought to be too dangerous. It took me some time to realise that this is what I really wanted to do. I was about 25, when I decided I wanted to be a blacksmith.
At first my family didn’t think it was a good idea. So I stayed doing a job which I didn’t enjoy as the manager of a training team and said nothing more.
But 10 years later I was still determined to become a blacksmith and persuaded my father I was serious.
What attracted you about the job?
I love the fact that you can transform a substance like metal, which is very hard, into whatever you want once it is heated.
Though I won’t hide the fact that it is a very physical job and pretty tough, you don’t actually need a superhuman strength to manipulate metal in all sorts of ways once it is hot, to create all sorts of different shapes – and that is a kind of magic.
You call yourself a ferronnier d’art. Is it artistic as well as manual?
There is a part which is very creative, making and designing my original pieces of furniture and home decorations.
You also need a great deal of reflection. I work on projects that clients bring in to me and then it is very important to work out how the metal will react before embarking on a project. You need a great deal of careful thought to be able to transform ideas into reality.
Are there many women blacksmiths?
I do not know exactly, but I think there are very few of us.
The whole milieu is definitely still a man’s world. In my work I meet a great deal of people in the building world and there are very, very few women.
I am perhaps something of a pioneer in this field. When I go to purchase my materials I am nearly always the only woman in the shop and it is rare to have a woman both at the head of a business like this and working in this field.
What other changes, besides you being the first woman, have happened at your forge since the 19th century?
The first three generations worked solely as farriers and with farmers. They made ploughs and shod horses. There was no creative work. It was solely utilitarian.
My grandfather, who was awarded Meilleur Ouvrier de France [best craftsperson in France], started a first revolution towards artistic work, by making entrance gates, stair handrails and adding scrolls and curls, but it was still not the majority of his work.
My father was the fourth generation and he increased the creative work, making a great deal of chateau railings, gates and stair handrails.
I am the fifth generation, and what interests me most is the creative side, making furniture for the home such as tables and lamps. I also love to combine different materials, such as leather and glass with metal and to work with other crafts people on a project.
Can you give me an example of one of your creations and how you set about it?
Together with my business partner, blacksmith Valentin Poilvez, we have designed a range of lamps which can be personalised with different finishes.
We work with local people including a joiner for the wood, an upholsterer for the leather and a mirror maker for the glass. I adore getting together with other skilled people to create a project, an object, a story and it is in that direction I want to develop.
How do you set about making a lamp?
The metal is folded into shape. Then there is the work of assembling the different elements together, such as the wood and the leather.
For some we heat the metal and beat it with a hammer to produce a relief on the surface. Though they are basically the same they nearly all have a slightly different and personalised finish so they take time to make.
We also have a project to engrave some in the future.
Do many people turn to decorative ironwork when they are thinking of a project for their home? Either to buy one of your creations or come up with their own ideas that you can make for them?
There are always a few but I would like more people to realise that a blacksmith’s work is not just about making railings “ The whole milieu is definitely still a man’s world. In my work I meet a great deal of people in the building world and there are very, very few women and gates which are heavy and complicated.
It can also be to make something which is smaller and simple. The advantage in choosing metal in your home is that you will have something robust which will last. The fact it is very versatile means you can finish it in many different ways and make something really personal.
Do you always work with iron?
It is my main material, but I also work a little with brass and copper.
The iron that we use now is made of iron and carbon. It is no longer made in France and most of mine comes from Italy. Iron is still readily available and not yet in any danger of running out.
But it is not the same as the iron my ancestors worked with. It has evolved and is produced using newer techniques but the quality is not the same either, it is not as hard.
It is still a cheap raw material and not yet regarded as a precious metal.
What puts the price up on our work is the time we need to make something as it is always a long process, and the cost of other products we need in the workshop, such as gas and coal and other elements to finish the object.
Can you explain how you work the metal?
We put the metal bar in the fire, which at its heart is at 1,200°. The metal changes colour as it heats up.
We watch carefully and bring out the bar when the colour corresponds to the particular way in which we want to work with it. There is a range which goes from dark red to white and we choose the one we need for the desired effect. Too hot though, and the metal will burn.
Did your father teach you all you know?
Yes, I did not need to go to a special school. He taught me everything.
I am in the same workshop as the first member of our family to become a blacksmith nearly 140 years ago.
Some of the tools I use are the same. There is a touch of modernity, but basically the work has remained exactly the same. There is still an element of danger and you have to be careful.
Is it a job or a passion for you?
It is both. But perhaps more of a passion than a job.