Duralex bankruptcy: the rise and fall of unbreakable dinnerware that revolutionized our kitchens
There are many everyday objects that can leave their mark on us, but few manage to become an icon capable of awakening a deep nostalgia shared by several generations. Duralex glassware flooded Spanish homes in the 1970s and 1980s, increasingly surviving as a holdover from a bygone era. Unbreakable pieces that we visualize on rubber tablecloths in the grandmother's house, battle crockery for the newly emancipated, cult objects for lovers of vintage and the so-called old-timeism. Duralex tried to adapt to the times, but after 75 years of activity, the company has been forced to declare bankruptcy.
The decision was taken on the 23rd and confirmed on Wednesday by the Orleans Commercial Court. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, a six-month observation period has been established, with the company's debts frozen after the due inventory of its accounts is carried out, while a recovery plan is being proposed. The company, located in La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin (Center-Loire Valley) will presumably continue working during this time without reducing, for the moment, its workforce.
The answer to a latent need
The success that launched Duralex pieces to be sold around the world is already explained from the brand's own name, a statement of intent. Playing with the well-known Latin expression, Dura Lex, Sed Lex (the law is harsh, but it is law), their tableware was born with the simple but effective objective of resisting a bombing. Or almost.
Today it may seem like a basic of any home, but dishes and utensils for serving and eating were for many centuries a privilege reserved for a small group of the population. The upper classes also competed in their quest to display wealth and good taste in the art of the table, as the codes of good manners were created. The most humble population had to be content with purely utilitarian objects, cheap and resistant, with the minimum of pieces and little or no artistic pretense.
The situation was changing with the rise of the middle classes, industrialization and the rise of urban life, but the immense population of the mid-20th century was not in a position to waste on everyday objects. Traditional earthenware, or glazed pottery, often part of the wedding trousseau, were extremely delicate. Fine glassware for many was not even a viable option.
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Today we relentlessly replace the dishes that flake or crack and fatten the display case with loose pieces from well-known brands - preferably on sale - that look good on Instagram. But our parents and grandparents prioritized durability and strength. We had not yet succumbed to the disposable consumer society. Things were good for what they were good for, and the longer they lasted, the better.
The secret of an (almost) unbreakable tableware
The origins of Duralex date back to the 1930s. Saint-Gobain, a company born as a glass company in the 17th century, acquired a facility near Orleans, used until then to make vinegars. His work perfecting tempered glass technology, originally for automotive glass, is considered pioneer in the industry, especially since it began to be applied to the manufacture of tableware.
Tempered glass or glass is obtained by gradually heating the material to a temperature of about 575-635ºC, and then rapidly cooling it with air. This allows to develop a resistance up to three times higher than the normal one of the original material, a great advantage for everyday objects such as household dishes.
The good results obtained led to the founding of Duralex in 1945, thus officially beginning the history of the popular brand. The postwar years were the company's first golden age, as the population of devastated France needed to optimize basic resources as much as possible while the recovery was on track.
Duralex offered everyday items that are already essential in any home, extremely resistant and at a very cheap price. Once the technology was mastered, the manufacture of tempered glass parts was not expensive, and this allowed for a lot of price adjustment.
Local success would quickly spread throughout Europe and half the world, especially from the economic growth of the following decades. The acquisition of good value for money products, practical and also with a certain modern flair, defined the new western prosperity and the creation of a new social context.
The conquest of the Spanish home
It was more difficult for Spain to reflect that prosperity that advanced Europe and also the United States boasted, but it was inevitable to get infected with that desire to move towards a freer modernity. We are not going to influence anything that the first seasons of 'Tell me how it happened' have not already counted, but it is enough to review those family scenes in the original Alcántara dining room to remember what Spanish homes were like in the 60s and 70s. Almost There were probably a few Duralex pieces in the cupboard.
The ceramics and fine glassware were reserved to be displayed in the showcase of honor, being seen only at Christmas and rare special occasions, while daily lunch and dinner - and breakfast, and snack - with Duralex. They were cheap, practical and extremely resistant objects, qualities that the company did not hesitate to highlight in its promotional campaigns.
"Duralex, the steel of glass," read advertising pages like the ones in the press in 1966. "The child and Duralex are safe. Duralex inspires confidence because it is practically unbreakable. Duralex dishes last longer and clean better. Duralex is so economical like any other plate, glass or mug, and it is even cheaper because it lasts much longer. "
Indeed, they facilitated busy family life, still shamelessly focused on the housewife ("safe with Duralex"). They withstood accidental blows, resisted scratches and scuffs, were unfazed by stews boiling out of the pot and were easily scrubbed, without protesting the most surly scouring pad. The truth is that tempered glass is not unbreakable, as it can accumulate kinetic energy and explode to a minimum, but, if such a misfortune occurred, Duralex would break into small spheres, less dangerous before possible cuts.
You could buy complete tableware, sets of cases or cups, packs of bowls or individual pieces, such as dishes of all kinds, jugs or trays. To the variety of designs was added the possibility of choosing the color: transparent, green or amber, of which there are lighter models and others darker, almost brown. Each family will associate their own memories to one tonality or another, although it was not uncommon to treasure a hodgepodge of several.
Mythical are the coffee glasses and cups, with their matching saucer, or the margarita-shaped plates. Although much more famous are two models of glass with their own name, the Gigogne (potbelly) and the most elegant Picardie (mischief), made of transparent and more versatile glass, often used in hospitality and has even reached the cinema, thanks to Daniel Craig's James Bond.
Going back to the supposedly emerging Spain of the 60s, the company saw in our needy society a vein to conquer all homes. There was a lot of demand, so it was more cost-effective to manufacture in the country itself. The Vidrieria de Castilla company was established in 1963, opening its own glass factory in Azuqueca de Henares (Guadalajara).
Duralex would even reach the villages, where today, in fact, they remain enduring as witnesses of that time. They were cheap products, but also modern, current, of foreign design and novelty. They were part of those objects that little by little were occupying a hole in daily life, assimilated from abroad, helping to get out of the economic and cultural backwardness that would still drag the country for many years.
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A modern tableware that to our eyes today seems ancient, torn between the old and the vintage, between a gray past and nostalgic memories of other times. All of us who grew up with his pieces, to a greater or lesser extent, associate them with childhood memories, flavors of traditional dishes, or the home of a specific relative. And many of those plates and glasses still resist, passing from generation to generation, surviving moves, transfers and renovations.
Difficulties adapting to a new society
The 1990s were a serious setback for the company. After thirty years of fervent expansion, the internationalization of markets, new competitors and a society that was changing too fast, held back profits. Saint-Gobain decided to ditch its tableware brand to focus on other markets, and Duralex was passed between different buyers.
Late in the new millennium, a group of shareholders took the reins of the brand to try to adapt the company to the new times, restructuring the company and its objectives. The facilities were modernized, the online store was launched and an attempt was made to attract new buyers by transforming the design of its products.
The old iconic tableware practically disappeared from the catalog -although that style is still present in some collections-, the models now focusing on a style more in line with current trends. Transparent glass predominates, with more decorative and less coarse designs, adding notes of color that update the old proposals.
The revamped Gigogne glass, for example, is now more refined and decorated with a colored Vichy motif; it's even sold at the MoMA store in New York. The launch of new pieces such as platters with hermetic lids in the form of a container, or glasses and bowls of many sizes, shapes and colors, show this desire to join today's trends.
However, although the company recovered in sales thanks to the last great economic crisis - there was again demand for cheap and practical objects - the brand has not been able to finish adapting to the difficulties of the current market, aggravated by the coronavirus health crisis , which has drastically reduced exports.
According to the current president of the brand, Antoine Ioannidès, after declaring bankruptcy, the company will continue in the coming months complying with its production plans. It ensures that they already have potential buyers and trust that they can negotiate a feasible way out to deal with their debts.
At the moment, current Duralex products are still found in regular stores and online stores. But it is not a bad idea to take inventory of the grandparents' house or rummage through storage rooms and boxes, to rescue possible pieces of this mythical tableware that, surely, many of us will still have.
Photos | iStock - Amazon - MoMA - Nachosmooth - Denkhenk - Pierre Gencey
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