Champagne, swords and silver

Nicolas Krafft is the Americas president and CEO of Christofle Inc., the luxury silver maker known for its flatware, home décor and jewelry. He’s also a master of the art of popping open a champagne bottle with a sword.

The method is called sabrage and it’s an old tradition in France and other countries in Europe. Krafft and his university buddies picked up the skill as students in France years ago and he says the idea of a bunch of college kids running around with swords isn’t as out of the ordinary as it might be in the U.S. (The Crestwood resident, who speaks with a French accent and has a jovial wit, jokes that you could walk into any corner store in Europe and buy a saber for a few Euros).

“If you do it properly, with a lot of panache, it is impressive,” he says. “If it’s well done, you don’t spill any champagne.”

There are several legends that tell of the origins of sabrage, Krafft says, but one of the most widely known is that it was started by the French cavalry in the time of Napoleon (incidentally the emperor’s nephew and heir, Napoleon III, had several Christofle pieces in his collection which are now catalogued by the Musée du Louvre). Soldiers rode back from the war on horseback through Eastern France and the Champagne region, where locals would hand them bottles of champagne as the horses pranced by. The soldiers, the story goes, invented sabrage as a way to open the bottles while riding horseback and never having to let go of the reins.

The trick is to unwrap the metal foil and remove the wire cage, then find the glass’ seam. The saber is along the seam up to the bottle’s rim, with the blade combined with the internal pressure sending away in a shot the entire top of the bottle, cork and all. Get the technique down and a sword isn’t even needed: Krafft can pop the head of a bottle off using the base of a champagne glass and he has a YouTube video under the Art of Sabrage showing him using a credit card (He says he’s the only sabrage master on the web demonstrating the technique with a charge card).

For those who might suddenly get overcome with the urge to mix their sabering with a nice bottle of bubbly, Krafft doesn’t recommend trying it without the guidance of an expert. The pressure inside a champagne bottle can be as high as 90 pounds per square inch, or PSI, which is three times the PSI of a car tire. A miscue could be dangerous.

“It can explode in your face and hurt somebody standing next to you,” he says. A tip: never use Prosecco or sparkling wines because the lower internal pressure and strength of the glass may be a shrapnel-making combination, he says.

Sabrage and champagne are part of appreciating the finer things and Krafft says that is the vision of the Christofle brand dating back to its beginnings in the 19th century by jeweler Charles Christofle.

“We are not a showoff brand,” he tells me in his Madison Avenue corner office, which overlooks Madison Square just across from the distinctive gated entrance and clock tower of the Met Life building. “They are not museum pieces, they are made to be used.”

Even the company’s Marcel Wanders-designed Jardin d’Eden-line spoon, which uniquely has an artful design on its back, was conceived so that the design was comfortable for people eating with it. A basic five-piece place setting in that design can run for around $600 retail.

Krafft has neat white hair and glasses and is a connoisseur of all things related to the company in much the same way he is a trained wine, champagne and spirit connoisseur. He describes the typical Christofle customer as high-net worth individuals, refined but who appreciates entertaining and attending a good party. Not very unlike a number of the company’s customers in Westchester and Fairfield counties.

“You can have a nice barbecue, but it’s even nicer if you have a champagne cooler,” he says. One of the standout pieces in Christofle’s Madison Avenue showroom is a champagne cooler that includes ornate silver-smithed flowers and can put nearly a full case on ice at once (Krafft notes in his friendly manner that beer cans also fit in the bucket). That piece, a limited edition silver plate called the Anemone-Belle Epoque Champagne Vasque, would cost about $65,000.

Most of the company’s offerings are built with stainless, silver plate and sterling silver. Krafft tells me that Christofle is aware that some customers recoil from silver products over the dreaded fear of tarnishing. From his windowsill, he retrieves the shiny Lacie Sphere, a 1-terabyte external hard drive with the elegant look of a silver sorcerer’s orb. The Christofle Sphere is treated with a new process called SilverEver.

“I can’t say it stops tarnishing, but it delays it considerably,” he says. The SilverEver process, which was tested by the company for four years prior to rollout, is a cutting edge process in the market. It’s already used in the Sphere and decorative products like Christofle’s made-to-order candelabras (the company says it makes a limited number before breaking a mold). It hasn’t been used to treat the flatware yet even though it has been FDA-approved for use. Heat reduces the effectiveness and Krafft said that cutlery put in a dishwasher would see the effectiveness reduced of SilverEver.

The company looks to continue to open two new stores in yet-to-be-determined locations in the next two years and is starting an online registry for weddings and other events. Social media and hashtags are a part of branding its sleek, understated and often hard-to-pin down aesthetics. Krafft says the company takes its brand and history seriously, but also enjoys working with artists. It is that approach of adapting that’s kept Christofle on the map for these years.

“We design pieces to our times,” he says. “When I say adapt to our time, it’s not to be a follower. We are avant garde, like the treatment is avant garde.”

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