Exceptional French Gold Embroidery

Master Artist Sylvie Deschamps and her Le Bégonia d'Or atelier
By Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
September 23, 2021 Updated: September 24, 2021

For the past 26 years, gold-thread embroiderer Sylvie Deschamps has headed Le Bégonia d’Or, a gold-embroidery workshop in the historic town of Rochefort, just south of La Rochelle in the west of France.

The town dates back to the 11th century, when Rochefort Castle was built to prevent a Norman attack. But the modern fortified town of Rochefort was established in the late 17th century, when the Sun King Louis XIV’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, founded an arsenal and military port there. To embellish the men’s military attire, gold-embroidery workshops were established in the town.

Deschamps continues the town’s gold-embroidery tradition. She holds the prestigious title of Master Artist, an honor bestowed by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication to fine craftspeople who are recognized by their peers as virtuoso artists, and who are capable of passing on the embroidery heritage to future generations.

Sylvie Deschamps
Master Artist, gold-thread embrioderer Sylvie Deschamps at work. (Guerlain/Courtesy of Le Bégonia d’Or)

There are only 89 master artists in France, and Deschamps is currently the only gold-thread embroiderer with the title. Recalling the day she received the honor in 2010, Deschamps said in a telephone interview, “It was one of the most memorable days of my life.”

The Master Artist title brought Deschamps and Le Bégonia d’Or much media attention, and many illustrious commissions from luxury companies such as the fashion houses of Hermès, Cartier, and Valentino; the perfumer Guerlain; the Swiss watchmaker Piaget; and the shoemaker John Lobb.

Sylvie Deschamps
Swiss watchmaker Piaget commissioned Le Bégonia d’Or to create 350 watch faces in two designs: a rose and a branch of laurel.  (Piaget/Courtesy of Le Bégonia d’Or)
Sylvie Deschamps
The laurel branch motif took Sylvie Deschamps and her assistant Marlène Rouhaud 10 hours to create, for Swiss watchmaker Piaget. (Piaget/Courtesy of Le Bégonia d’Or)

Besides the luxury brands, the Le Bégonia d’Or atelier also undertakes commissions to design and create unique embellishments for interiors of private jets, yachts, and homes. In addition, Deschamps and her team restore and repair gold embroidery on many items, from ecclesiastical banners to customers’ couches.

Sylvie Deschamps
A Parisian customer asked Le Bégonia d’Or to restore this couch. (Le Bégonia d’Or)
Sylvie Deschamps
To fully restore a badly damaged couch, gold embroidery had to be set on new velvet. (Le Bégonia d’Or)
Sylvie Deschamps
Le Bégonia d’Or restored this velvet couch to its former glory. (Le Bégonia d’Or)

An important part of the atelier is ensuring that the tradition of gold-thread embroidery is taught to future generations. Deschamps’s apprentice, Marlène Rouhaud works alongside her, and the atelier runs classes throughout the year for different skill levels.

Mastering Gold-Thread Embroidery

As a teenager, Deschamps once set her heart on becoming a lingerie maker, as she loved different types of delicate lace. Her love for lace remains, but her professional lingerie-making hopes were dashed when she was 15 years old. A lack of students interested in learning to make lingerie meant the course she wanted to take didn’t run that year.

The school also specialized in gold-thread embroidery, and when Deschamps saw some of the finished pieces, she knew that was what she wanted to study.

“The gold thread chose me, rather than me choosing the material,” she said.

For six years, Deschamps learned from the best embroiderer in Lyon, Lucie Teston, at Bouvard & Duviard. Under Teston’s strict tutelage, she perfected her embroidery skills, learning all kinds of embroidery techniques—some of which date back to the 15th century.

In 1995, Deschamps was approached to be director of the new atelier, Le Bégonia d’Or. The atelier is the only state-funded gold-embroidery workshop in France, Deschamps said. The atelier was established to serve the local school for its gold-embroidery students to gain work experience, as per traditional training.

Sylvie Deschamps
Sylvie Deschamps and her team at Le Bégonia d’Or embroider haute couture. Here, they work on a piece for Valentino. (Courtesy of Le Bégonia d’Or)

Meticulously Made in France

All the materials used in the atelier are made in France. And the gold thread itself is made by the historic gold-thread maker in the country, Ets Carlhian.

Gold thread differs from normal embroidery threads such as silk. Gold thread consists of a little spring of gold which is cut to size and then strung on a thread, like stringing pearls. The precious metal thread isn’t as supple as normal thread, and it requires delicate, expert handling since it can easily be damaged, Deschamps explained.

“When you touch gold thread, it’s smooth and cold … and it’s wonderful to handle and have between your fingers,” she said.

Many of Le Bégonia d’Or’s commissions demonstrate Deschamps’s exquisite skills, and indeed her patience. For instance, Swiss watchmaker Piaget approached Deschamps to make 350 limited-edition watch faces for its exclusive Altiplano ultrathin watches.

Sylvie Deschamps
Sylvie Deschamps and her assistant Marlène Rouhaud took 35 hours to hand embroider each rose for this limited-edition Piaget watch. (Piaget/Courtesy of Le Bégonia d’Or)

The Altiplano watches are wafer-thin, and Deschamps and her assistant Rouhaud had to work with hair-fine gold thread to embroider several different designs: for instance, a rose in pink silk and white-gold thread, and a laurel branch in white-gold thread. Deschamps explained that they had to stop many times due to the gold thread snapping. Each rose took 35 hours to create, and each laurel branch took 10 hours. 

Sylvie Deschamps
The gold thread used for this rose, for a Piaget watch face, was hair-thin and had to be handled with extreme care. (Piaget/Courtesy of Le Bégonia d’Or )

In 2013, the French cosmetic company Guerlain celebrated the 160th anniversary of its iconic perfume L’Eau Impériale. The company organized a competition for master artists to create a limited-edition embellished perfume bottle or its packaging. Nine designs were selected.

Sylvie Deschamps
Le Bégonia d’Or gold-thread embroiderers Sylvie Deschamps and Marlène Rouhaud took 135 hours to embellish the iconic Guerlain perfume bottle, to celebrate the 160th anniversary of Guerlain’s perfume L’Eau Impériale. (Guerlain/Courtesy of Le Bégonia d’Or)

One of those selected was Le Bégonia d’Or’s entry. Deschamps along with Rouhaud took 135 hours to embroider the bottle, which is on display in Guerlain’s boutique on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

To discover more about Le Bégonia d’Or, visit Broderieor.com. 

Evelyn Combeau acted as translator from French to English.