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Meet France’s oldest producer of fèves in Galettes de Rois

Crafting fèves is a year-round business for Fèves Colas in Nièvre, the oldest producer of the tiny lucky charms in France 

Galettes des Rois are the frangipane-filled* pastries eaten every year to celebrate epiphany on January 6, the day the Three Kings arrived at the manger where Jesus was born.

Whoever gets the slice containing the charm is king or queen for the day.

Originally, the charm was a bean – it is still known as a fève – but now they are tiny figurines coming in a vast range of themes

More than 90% are plastic and imported from Asia but there are still four or five companies in France making their own in ceramics and, sometimes, glass.

Fèves Colas, at Clamecy in Nièvre (Bourgogne-Franche- Comté), is the most prestigious, supplying chefs and bakers all over the world, royalty in Monaco, and the French ambassador in Washington.

The company was founded in 1937 by Roger Colas, who also made decorated china tableware. His son Jean-François took over in 1980 and wanted to re-introduce a “Made in France” ceramic fève to compete with cheap plastic ones.

Gradually, the idea took hold until it became the speciality of the company. It continues to make other items such as vases and plates, but fèves are the main output.

Roger Colas’ grandchildren, Alexandre Colas and Elodie Colas-Verschoore, took over the running of the company 15 years ago. They learned their skills direct from their father and grandfather, with no need for formal studies in ceramics.

Mrs Colas-Verschoore said they use the same techniques as anyone making pottery, learned over three generations, but fèves require a particular attention to detail and patience as one lucky charm will take weeks to complete:

“First, there is the design stage. It is like the fashion industry, where we have to bring out new collections every year. We design about 15, each including between six and 10 different charms.

“We also create to order, so that a village can have pictures of its own architectural heritage, or a school can have drawings the children have made of themselves. This year we have made a Merci collection, using children’s drawings to depict the wonderful professions which carried on working to help us during the Covid pandemic.”

The fèves are either three dimensional shapes or flat.

Each shape is first sculpted by hand in clay, which is used to make a mould

Slip, which is a mixture of clay and water, is poured into the mould, and left to dry for several hours. The mould is carefully peeled away, and the raw fève revealed and tidied up carefully before it is fired in the kiln at more than 1000C.

“There can be up to four firings in all,” said Mrs Colas- Verschoore.

“Each one takes a long time because the kiln has to heat up to very high temperatures and then cool down before we can open the door. If we start a first biscuit firing on a Friday evening, we cannot see the results until the following Monday.”

There are then two methods of decoration. One is to paint the detail by hand with a paintbrush. The same gestures have to be repeated to create several of the same model.

They are fired a second time before a glaze is added, and then there is a third session in the kiln.

The second method is to apply a transfer of the design on to the charm. This is done after the transparent glaze and a second firing, and is followed by a third firing.

The most prestigious fèves sometimes then have a final detail added in gold, which has to be fired a fourth time in a special kiln dedicated to this purpose, with highly sensitive temperature control, because gold is so volatile. “Fèves are unique, and unlike any other type of ceramic work,” said Mrs Colas-Verschoore.

“They are wonderful and magical to make, because we know they will be an object that fascinates adults and children alike as everyone is curious to know who will win the charm and what it will look like this time.

“They are tiny objects which are admired and kept down the generations. Our biggest satisfaction comes when our clients get back to us and tell us how happy they were with the quality of our charms.”

The Colas fèves are sold to professionals who sell Galettes des Rois, but also to members of the public, who can buy them on their website

*Brioche-style cakes with candied fruit (gâteaux des rois) are also made, notably in the south.

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