Absinthe Spoons

The quintessential absinthe accoutrement are perforated spoons for holding the sugar cube over the glass. Usually made from plated brass, tin or nickel, they are found in an extraordinarily wide range of designs. This section includes some particularly interesting spoons including an undocumented absinthe spoon made in the USA circa 1910, the so-called Boulenger spoon, an unusually heavy silverplate Les Trous, a fine publicity spoon for Absinthe Pernot, and a very beautiful and scarce Les Feuilles #20.

Les Trous #2.

Les Losanges Etires #1.

Les Etoilles #1.

Les Carres #1.

Les Publicitaires #22.

Les Publicitaires in Losanges pattern for Absinthe Guillemaud.

Les Trous #16.

Les Trous #13 – Made by Boulenger.

Les Feuilles #6, made in Switzerland.

Les Feuilles #26.

Spoon made in the US by Reed & Barton, with “Cafe Lafayette NY” engraved on the handle. The only recorded US-made spoon.

Les Fleurs #2.

One of the most extraordinary of all absinthe spoons – Les Feuilles #20. According to the Orfèvrerie Armand Frénay catalogue, it originally cost 3.75 fr, making it one of the most expensive absinthe spoons available, suitable for use in a top class restaurant or hotel.

Les Publicitaires #7.

An original complete case of 6 Les Ouvrages #9.

Les Etoiles #7 variant.

Les Grillagées & Les Grilles

Absinthe “grilles” were an alternative to the perforated spoon, and gave the manufacturer even more freedom of design. A central platform, supported by three or four legs, held the sugar cube. Although their use was never widespread in France, they were popular in Switzerland, and most surviving examples are of Swiss origin (these are also known as Les Rondes).

Les Grillagées #2Note the unusual reinforcement of the handle.

Les Grillagées #3.

Les Grillagées #6.

A cartoon from Chronique Amusant 9th December 1897, showing this type of spoon in use.

Unrecorded Les Grilles possibly originating from French North Africa.

A beautifully made Grille in metal blanc, unlisted, but documented in the Orfèvrerie Armand Frénay catalogue, where it was offered for 2.50fr.

A completely unrecorded Les Grilles, most likely of Swiss manufacture, and similar indimensions to the grilles shown in Gantner’s 1908 poster (segment shown above) protesting against the Vaud anti-absinthe referendum. The same distinctive three-legged scalloped-edged grille is also featured several times in Gantner’s drawings for the Swiss satirical journal Guguss (1913 image at left).

Les Grilles #10a.

Les Grilles #45a. A unique spoon design, with a clip to grip the edge of the glass. This hallmarked silver version is one of a pair made for a wealthy Genevois family in the early 1900’s by Orféverie J. Darier.

Ornate Les Grilles “N”.

Les Grilles #36” Coquille St Jacques.”

Les Grilles #18.

Les Grilles #20.

Les Cuillères Longues

Generally a scarce category of spoons, with a separate sugar cradle in the middle of the handle. Some of the larger East glasses can only be used with this type of spoon.

The classic Les Cuillères #1.

Ornately moulded Les Cuillères #6, made from aluminium.

Les Cuillères #4.

Variant of Les Cuillères #5.

An enlargement from the satirical postcard series “L’Homme distrait”, showing a Les Cuillères in use.

Les Tours Eiffel

The famous absinthe spoons commemorating the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. These spoons have been extensively faked, and it can be difficult to distinguish real from counterfeit, especially just from photographs. As a general rule of thumb: genuine spoons always have the maker’s mark crisply stamped (in almost all cases accompanied by a slight deformation around the stamp where the metal has been stressed), whereas on the fakes the makers mark is molded, and appears less sharp and distinct with no stress marks on the surrounding metal.

Les Tours Eiffel #1, with the vertical line or “nerve” at the top point (see enlargement), and the oval stamp “FZ Paris.” Fakes of this variant have recently come on to the market.

Genuine examples of the two most frequently counterfeited spoons. The #1 has no “nerve” at the point, but the round makers mark “WJB Depose” on the handle is stamped, not moulded, indicating a genuine spoon. The #3 has the “Guelon” mark often seen on fraudulent spoons, but it is crisply stamped, not moulded. Further, the dome of the pavillion does NOT touch the underneath of the arch of the tower, as it does on some of the counterfeits.

Les Tours Eiffel #4 with stamp: “Absinthe Suisse Superieure Guillemaud”. Note that this model, unlike the normal #3 design, has two extra holes on either side of the tower.

Les Tours Eiffel #6 “Silhouette”.

Les Tours Eiffel #3a in an unusually thin “metal blanc.”

Les Tours Eiffel #7 “1889.”

Les Tours Eiffel #8 “Grande Roue 1900” shows the Ferris wheel erected near the Tour Eiffel for the 1900 World Expo. This is one of the very greatest rarities amongst absinthe spoons.

Les Feuilles d’Absinthe

Perhaps the most beautiful category of all absinthe spoons, with the intertwined leaves of the wormwood plant incorporated into the design of the spoon.

Les Feuilles d’Absinthe #3 “Absinthe Française Lacaux Frères, la meilleure des meilleures.”

Les Feuilles d’Absinthe #1.

Les Feuilles d’Absinthe #4 Absinthe Joanne.

Les Cuillères de Poilus

A ‘poilu’ (literally “hairy one”) was a French rank-and-file infantryman of the Great War – roughly the equivalent of the British Tommy. The trench art (often taking the form of personal utensils – lighters, pipes, match-cases, inkwells) produced in the first few years of the war is a poignant reminder of the era. Fashioned from whatever improvised materials were to hand – tin, brass from shell casings, aluminium – these often crudely artisanal items were made for daily use, as gifts to send home, or just to while away the boredom of trench-life. Absinthe spoons were made only in the first few months of the war (because thereafter the drink was banned). They are usually extremely primitive, and often produced in aluminium (which was soft and easy to cut). More expertly worked examples like the brass model below are extremely rare.

Manufactured from brass taken from a shell casing, this exceptional cuillère de poilu is unusually skillfully made. The soldier has stamped his initials “PB” on the handle, and the punched holes make up the date “1914.” Whilst most absinthe spoons have only one “grip” – the notch on the handle – this spoon has three: the notched handle, and two flower petals at either side curved down at the tips. Unlike a café spoon which was made to use with glasses of varying size, this spoon has clearly been tailored to specifically fit the soldier’s own drinking vessel.

The Toulouse-Lautrec Spoons

The most expensive, but also the most controversial of all absinthe spoons are the so-called “Toulouse-Lautrec” spoons – purportedly designed and used by the legendary artist himself. Their exact status is the subject of heated debate amongst absinthiana collectors.

Some thoughts on the “Toulouse-Lautrec” spoons: 12 identical spoons, of a strikingly unique art nouveau design and with Lautrec’s artistic monogram cut into the tip, were discovered over a decade ago, reportedly by a retired colonel who found them together with a signed Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph. The highly knowledgeable collector through whose hands the 12 spoons first passed, has an impeccable reputation. The spoons have been the subject of much discussion and controversy amongst absinthiana collectors – are they Toulouse-Lautrec’s personal absinthe spoons, designed and monogrammed by the legendary artist and absintheur himself? – in which case they are art-historical artefacts of profound importance – or are they something else? perhaps even fakes made specifically to deceive gullible collectors.

Having had the opportunity to study two of the spoons in detail under a jeweller’s loupe, and having examined photographs of several others, I believe the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

There are two broad factors that contribute to the debate over the Toulouse-Lautrec spoons:

1. Firstly, the context:
That Toulouse-Lautrec, a relatively wealthy aristocrat, would commission his own absinthe spoons out of plated brass, rather than silver, and then mark them with his artistic monogram, rather than his family coat of arms, seems a little implausible. He was famous by the time of his death, and world famous shortly afterwards. Many of his personal possessions were preserved, including the famous “drinking” cane at the Musée Toulouse Lautrec in Albi. None are marked with his monogram.

The design of the spoon also isn’t particularly characteristic of Lautrec’s work – the sinuous art nouveau lattice at the base of the bowl seems rather to suggest Mucha or Privat-Livemont. Overall, some collectors feel the spoons are “too good to be true” – like finding the razor that Van Gogh used to cut off his ear.

2. Secondly, the physical evidence:
All the spoons seem to have entirely missing plating around the monogram, on both sides of the spoon. This is an unusual pattern of wear in an absinthe spoon, and can’t easily be explained just by normal usage. Most absinthe spoons show wear at the tip of the handle, on the raised notch that gripped the glass, and sometimes on the underside of the spoon bowl itself. If there is wear on the tip, it’s only at the extreme end where it would touch the glass, not usually halfway down the spoon bowl.

The more likely explanation for the missing plating, which completely surrounds the monogram, is that the monogram itself was individually cut into the spoons after they had been plated – this would inevitably weaken the silver-plate in this area. Examining the monograms closely under a loupe, it’s easy to see that each one is slightly different, and that they show numerous tiny deviations where the cutter has made small errors, and then corrected himself.

I would consider this a strong indication that the spoons weren’t actually designed by and manufactured specifically for Toulouse-Lautrec. If Lautrec had designed the spoons himself, the monogram would surely have been an integral moulded part of the design (or at very least been cut in prior to plating). It’s possible of course that Lautrec bought a dozen “off the shelf “ spoons, and then, rather than have the handles engraved, as was customary, had his artistic monogram hand cut (a difficult and laborious process) into each one.

If the spoons were “off the shelf “, why are there no other examples without the monogram? One might expect a striking design like this to have had a higher than average survival rate, yet none have been found. This of course in itself doesn’t necessarily prove anything: other exceptional designs – the 1900 ‘Tour Eiffel’ and the ‘Garnison Nancy’ – are also only known in tiny quantities.

Unlike the vast majority of absinthe spoons, the Lautrec spoons are moulded, an indication of small scale manufacture. These arguments, taken together, lead me to believe that the spoons were, on a balance of probabilities, not in fact specifically designed by and made for Toulouse-Lautrec.

What exactly is their likely status then?

There are 3 possible explanations:

1. The spoons are entirely deliberate fakes, made by a talented craftsman, possibly using a copied design from an art nouveau sourcebook. This is not in my opinion a realistic possibility – the design is artistically unusually distinguished, and the spoons “in hand” have every appearance of age.

2. They were tribute or souvenir items, made perhaps for one of the cabarets he frequented, in the first decade or so after Toulouse-Lautrec’s death in 1901. Remember that his fame literally exploded in the years immediately after his death. (Although this explanation still doesn’t really explain why the monogram was cut in later, rather than integrated into the design in the first place).

3. They are genuine absinthe spoons, which, somewhere along the way, were “enhanced” with the Toulouse-Lautrec monogram. On balance this seems the most likely explanation: a remarkable, rare and fascinating set of spoons “improved” in an attempt to enhance their value.

None of these three alternatives is a perfect fit with the observed evidence, which is sometimes contradictory. Although I feel, that #3 above is by far the most likely explanation, unless more similar spoons, or some significant supporting documentation is found – both unlikely at this stage – the exact status of the Lautrec spoons is likely to remain a matter of dispute for the foreseeable future.

Orféverie Alfénide & Gombault Catalogue 1891 which was together with Christofle, one of the largest manufacturers.