Duralex – the glass tumbler that would not be broken

A French design classic has been saved from extinction by new investors who are determined to have the famous brand name on everyone's lips once again. John Lichfield reports from La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin

This is the story of a glass that bounced. The Duralex is the favourite glass of American Yuppies but also of Afghan tribesmen. It has been described as the "ultimate drinking vessel created by man". Its elegant, conical shape has long been recognised as a design classic which screams "France" just as much as the Eiffel Tower or a waiter in a long, white apron.

At one time the fluted, almost unbreakable, Duralex "Picardie", and its equally tough sister, the straighter Duralex "Gigogne", could be found in every French café, school canteen or works cafeteria. The tumblers were exhibited in art museums; they were the subject of a dozen learned essays on the principles of simple, satisfying, functional design.

The original publicity for the glasses in the Fifties claimed that they could be "used as hammers". They were more often associated with knocking back cloudy glasses of pastis from zinc bars. Duralex glasses spread all over the world and especially to the Middle East (where the smaller ones were regarded as perfect for sipping tea). There is a photograph of Osama bin Laden holding a Duralex Picardie tumbler.

Marketing managers are usually ready to die or, worse, pay large sums of money, for that kind of brand recognition. And yet 18 months ago, the Duralex name appeared to have been smashed into a thousand pieces. Despite the iconic status of the brand, the French parent company had been abused and exploited, and then mishandled, by two foreign buyers over a period of 11 years (Kraft and Cadbury management please note).

Competition from Chinese and Indonesian imitations; lack of capital investment; failure to understand, or to make proper use of, its own mythical status pushed Duralex to the verge of bankruptcy in 2005 and again in 2008. "Vintage" (ie Seventies and Eighties) Duralex glasses became greatly prized and commanded high prices on eBay. Internet designistas and lovers of classic kitchenware posted poignant blogs bemoaning the fact that their beloved Picardie and Gigogne tumblers seemed to have vanished from the market. And then, abruptly, Duralex bounced back, like one of its glasses hitting the floor of a school canteen. The San Francisco-based household and kitchen chain, Williams-Sonoma, a high temple of understated elegance for American Yuppiedom, announced triumphantly a few months ago that it was selling the Picardie and Gigogne again.

What happened? The Independent set out into darkest and deepest central France – to an untidy, industrial estate on the edge of the city of Orleans – to find out. We discovered a large factory, almost a foundry. It is here that Duralex glasses and other lines of "tempered-glass" kitchenware are forged in an "oven" the size of an apartment block. We watched as dollops of molten fire – a blend of sand, lime and aluminium-oxide – turned instantly into plates. Once cooled, they were deliberately dropped from a height or plunged into freezing water. There were no breakages. Only part of the factory site is still in use; there are 210 people at work, compared with 1,400 people at the height of Duralex's commercial strength in the Seventies and Eighties. But the future of the brand once again seems assured.

"We have a mythical brand, yes, but even a mythical brand is no good if you do everything wrong," said the new president of Duralex International, Antoine Ioannides. "For 18 months we have been doing some things right again. The brand itself was so strong that we were always confident that, if allowed to express itself, it could succeed. We are very happy with how things are going."

Since a buyout in July 2008, led by Mr Ioannides, his two brothers and a couple of senior members of Duralex management, sales have boomed. In France, where Duralex's market share had collapsed by 75 per cent, the glasses are back in canteens and on supermarket shelves (sales are up 12 per cent in a falling market). Sales in Europe as a whole are up 16 per cent (except in Britain, of which more later). Duralex is in negotiations with Ikea, which usually prefers to source its products in the developing world. Sales in the US, partly through Williams-Sonoma, are surging.

But how could such a strong brand have fallen so low in the first place?

The Duralex brand-name was imprinted on the minds of French boys and girls from the day that they learned to read. For decades, a game has been played in French school canteens. Every child at a table would read out the serial number stamped with the Duralex logo on the bottom of their water glass. The number – anything between 1 and 48 – became that child's "age" for that lunchtime. The "youngest" had to fetch the water for the rest of the table.

The design guru Patrick Taylor lists the Duralex Picardie tumbler alongside the great classics of design such as the Swiss army knife and Levi jeans. On his design website, he speaks about the Picardie glass (designed in 1954 by a person unknown) as a wine taster might speak of a fine Burgundy.

"The upper part of the side is smooth surfaced and curves gently outwards at the part that goes into your mouth, as if to encourage the liquid on its way. The rounded edge of the lip of the glass is especially comfortable against your lips because, for durability, the glass is comparatively thick. But the glass has just the right weight, and the feel of the ridges between the flutings makes it seem thinner and more delicate than it actually is..."

How could such a popular paragon among glasses almost go bust? Frédéric Morin-Payé has worked for the company for 13 years and is commercial director in the new team. He says the company suffered from competition from China, Indonesia and other European factories, which learned how to make glasses which looked broadly the same. Worse, the company was bought out in 1997 by an Italian glass company which made use of Duralex's reputation and export contacts in 100 countries, but neglected to market the brand and starved the factory of investment.

The Italians were bought out in turn by a Turkish businessman in 2005. "He had the best of intentions but got everything wrong," Mr Morin-Payé said. "Because we were already big in the Middle East, he decided to concentrate his efforts there, selling a small range of products into a low-price market."

Since the change of management in 2008, Duralex continues to be big in the Middle East. Its largest export market is – believe it or not – Afghanistan where Duralex is the default tea glass, even in the most far-flung villages. (Hence the photo of Osama bin Laden with a Picardie).

However, the rebuilt company has also revived sales to what Mr Ioannides calls the "bobo" (Bourgeois Bohemian) markets in Europe and the US. British sales are relatively sluggish because, he complains, the dominant UK supermarket chains prefer other glass manufacturers whom they can bully into selling under the supermarket brand name.

Duralex expects its turnover in France to rise 70 per cent this year. The cheaper Middle East sales, which were two thirds of total production two years ago, should soon drop to 30 per cent, without falling in volume terms.

Bo-bos, or Yuppies, in the US and the Netherlands, and even Britain, can have the satisfaction, once again, of drinking from the same mythical glass as French schoolchildren and Afghan tribesmen and Osama bin Laden.

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