In her showroom in Jumeirah, which opened recently, Madame Sylvie Gauthier sits on a Louis XV chair, lovingly caressing its original 19th century fabric, and then comments on its ‘beautiful ears' — the curves of the arm rests and feet. Surrounded by a few of her favourite things, 18th and 19th century select French antiques, she casts a proud eye around, taking in her babies that she has discovered and restored.
The showroom, Old Century, is a modern structure bearing an ancient Arabian court façade. Contemporary windows embedded in sand-coloured walls with faux windtowers conjure a general feel of Old Arabia. When inside, once again you are transported back in time to the glamour and grandeur of historical France and its royalty.
Beautiful French tapestries line the walls and the double storey villa-style showroom is filled from corner to corner with French antiques. Paintings, sculptures, clocks and chandeliers mingle with furniture and transform the space into a curiously ornate wonder emporium, where each piece tells an interesting tale.
Sylvie tells us her own story of growing up surrounded by relics. Her father Jean Laurent started his antiques business in Lyon, which was once considered the gold capital of France. "It was very rich and bourgeois, and clearly that was where the money was," she says. The city inevitably became the French antiques capital. Her family's growing business over the decades saw them expand from one shop in the Stalingrad market to four flourishing ones across Lyon. This is also where she developed a loyal Middle Eastern clientele.
She recalls the earlier days when her father would bring home a ‘new' antique piece before it was transported to his shop the next day. "I would observe carefully, taking in the lines and the craftwork. I grew up in the middle of these old, valuable objects, enveloped by antiques and discussions on the same. And I could barely wait till I attained the legal working age. As soon as I turned 18 I jumped straight into the antiques business."
Her antiques journey began at the flea market, armed with her truck and knowledge. "And only a little help from my father," she laughs, "in that I would hop along when he went to buy pieces and end up buying what he wouldn't pick!" Her father was basically a buyer and seller of antiques. There was no major fixing or restoration involved. He eventually gave in to his daughter's growing keenness to work in the antiques market, and handed her the keys to his shop in Lyon. "The moment I got the keys, I changed everything around. I decorated the shop and took some pieces for proper restoration. I started transforming it slowly and developing the business. Sales went up and we started doing quite well."
Their shops in Lyon deal in a wide range of antiques. However, the pieces for the Dubai showroom underwent careful selection and cover predominantly the 18th and 19th centuries. French tapestry experts were specially flown in to stretch authentic tapestries on the walls of the showroom, thereby enhancing the appeal of the venerable objects on display.
Sylvie launches into a passionate (and not so short) summary of styles, from Louis XV to XVI, the Regence style in between, and the demise of King Louis XVI, which witnessed the birth of the Directoire style, followed by Empire, Restoration and Napoleon III. We walk around a piece which, Sylvie claims, is extremely difficult to acquire. It is a Louis XV table, restored to perfection, displaying strong marquetry and beautifully-sculpted bronze corners in the shape of a woman's head.
Her eyes light up as she excitedly shows us another piece of fabulous carpentry where the veins of the wood meet in perfect symmetry and conjunction — a rare and expensive feature in antiques. Another Louis XVII piece has been stamped by Mouterre, a known master craftsman of the time, with much praise of his talent penned down in later history.
Sylvie's move to Dubai has been her first outside France. For as long as she can remember, she has harboured a curiosity about the Middle East and its culture. Feeling settled and happy in Dubai now, she expects to stay on indefinitely and call it her home. With Old Century, she is also hopeful about bridging cultures in the future. "We (Jean and I) saw a gap in the market and realised the need for an authentic French antiques store here. I am very proud to bring my own culture to this part of the world."