In France, The Final Note For World's Oldest Piano Maker
Pleyel pianos, founded in 1809, built pianos for Chopin and other masters. In the end, it couldn't find a new business strategy to survive against Asian competition.
SAINT-DENIS — Talk about a coincidence. Just a little more than a year before the prestigious Salle Pleyel classical music concert hall is to be converted to a more humble jazz locale, the Pleyel piano factory is now living its last days.
The workshop, located in Saint-Denis, just north of Paris, had long employed only 15 or so artisans, and it will close its doors permanently by the end of the year, a French artists federation recently confirmed to the Agence-France Presse.
Its owner, French entrepreneur Hubert Martigny — co-founder of Altran, the engineering group that also financed the rebirth of the Salle Pleyel concert hall — said a year ago that he was seeking a buyer for the piano manufacturer. It is the oldest still active in the world since its creation by Austrian-born French composer Ignace Pleyel in 1809.
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Paris' Salle Pleyel — Photo: Andreas Praefcke/GNUFDL
Despite the association with the master Frédéric Chopin — it once built pianos for him — the history of the Pleyel company has also been marked by its share of tragedy and accidents. Since the 1960s, the business has suffered in the face of Asian competition. After a short stint in Alès in the south of France and in Italy, the factory was back in the Paris region in 1998 — with Martigny managing to reposition Pleyel as an upscale brand, even restarting the production of grand pianos. But its revival never went as far as to convince concert-level players to trade in their Steinways for Pleyels.
To survive, Pleyel launched into custom-made pianos, investing in world-class instruments. The brand hired renowned designers — Andrée Putman, Hilton McConnico, Marco Del Rey — who signed exceptional pieces for wealthy amateurs willing to spend dozens (or even hundreds) of thousands of euros for customized instruments.
The piano maker thus revived the tradition of “decorative arts” that was en vogue in the 1930s. In the meantime, the workshop put its know-how at the service of luxury brands such as Hermès, providing decor for its shops.
Located close to the Stade de France football stadium, the workshop combines traditional craftsmanship and the latest technology — with a five-axis CNC machine capable of chiselling special piano frames. Sales, however, haven’t followed. Turnover never exceeded 1.5 million euros, leaving no hope of recovery. All that will be left of Pleyel now will be a jazz music hall with its name.