Bontems, Blaise


Blaise Bontems was born on March 15, 1814 in Le Mevil, a small village in the French Vosges mountains. Her is the story of his beginnings, as he later told to a reporter: “ Modest apprentice watch-maker (he) one day had an antique snuffbox to repair, with a bird whistling a tune by André Grétry, 1741-1813) “Vive le son”. The precision of this liliputian mechanism astounded him and he began to regret that the bird did not sing like flesh and blood birds did. He decided to try to modify the mechanism. The following Sunday after Vespers, he went along to the woods and stayed until evening, listening to the nightingales and noting their least little trills and roulades. Back home, he spent the night adjusting the gears of the musical snuffbox. The next bright early morning his tutor was surprised to hear what he took to be a real nightingale’s song. This first singing bird was such a success that young Blaise began to make others, in order to sell them… Soon he set up his own firm, settling in 1849 into the entresol of the rue Cléry.

At first, no one knew how to describe the unusual pieces that Bontems made. In the commercial directories of the day, he appeared under two headings: “clockmaker” and “naturalist” – at the time Bontems used stuffed birds rather than the feather-covered metal shells that he adopted later.

The firm grew rapidly, taking part in great success national and international exhibitions. In 1855, Bontemps called himself “inventor and maker of moving and singing birds on clocks, groups and pictures”. He proudly stated that he was a supplier of her Royal Highness the Queen of England.

In 1860, it was noted that 90% of Bontemps production was exported. During these early days, Bontemps had very few competitors. The report of the Paris 1867 Exhibition stated that he was the only manufacturer in this category.

At the 1878 Exhibition, Bontemps requested a large stand measuring 5 meters long and 3 meters high in order to display his birds “on flower vases, in cages, aviaries, clocks and various other automatic items”. The effect was striking. His products were distinguished by the elegance, naturalness of the birds singing and movement, the simplicity and reliability of the mechanism.

The Bontems firm reached the height of its glory during the last quarter of the 19th century, becoming extremely successful and winning many medals at international exhibitions.

Blaise retired in 1881, leaving the firm in the hands of his son Charles.

By the end of the century, Charles Bontems employed twelve men and eight women. Totally, the firm produced about 400 pieces a year. In 1905, the firm won two silver medals, as well a gold medal.

After Charles Bontems, his son Lucien took charge of the firm. Times had changed and Lucien made important innovations, modernizing the company and renewing the stock of tools and machines.

A 1930 brochure stated, “The birds move their heads, their beaks and their tails, which gives them the appearance of real birds. They can be made to sing either continuously or intermittently, with the simple touch of a lever. In the cages containing several birds, each one sings a different song, one after other”.

Like all members of the Bontems dynasty, Lucien valued above all the high quality of mechanisms’ manufacturing. When the use of electricity became generalized, Bontems offered electrical mechanisms, which had the advantage of requiring winding. However, spring-run mechanisms continued to be made. The first World War reduced business to a trickle.

A new development in the 1920-1930’s was the rental of bird boxes and cages to cinematographic companies.

Following the death of Lucien Bontems in 1965, his widow sold the remaining stock to Reuge, makers of music boxes in Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, in 1966. Reuge worked for a while with Bontems models, and then changed their orientation.

Thus ended the dynasty founded in the mid-19th century by Blaise Bontems.

The Bontems firm in the rue de Cléry had a rival company, starting from about 1899. Alfred Bontems was its director. He was the son of Clement, another brother of Blaise, and therefore Charles’ cousin. He set up shop in Paris around 1900, in the rue de Mulhouse, not far from the rue de Cléry. He made pieces closely resembling those made by his cousin, but never quite attained the importance nor the popularity of the older Bontems firm. Alfred Bontems died on June 11, 1936, leaving the rue de Mulhouse firm to his son Leon, who continued his father’s business. Over three decades later, he sold his remaining stock to several enthusiasts and collectors, dying soon afterwards, in 1966.

Exhibits in the Museum Collection