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Charente-Maritime

With its Atlantic coastline, pretty seaside villages and unspoilt islands, the Charente-Maritime has been a long time favourite with those seeking sun, sea and sand. But travel inland and the Romanesque architecture, cognac producing vineyards and gallo-roman remains will capture your imagination. Find out more about the attractions in the Charente-Maritime here.

We have gathered a number of our favourite features on the Charente-Maritime below...

 

He sells seashells on the seashore - Hervé Gallet

He sells seashells on the seashore - Hervé Gallet

The Ile d'Aix is synonymous with the tradition of transforming seashells into mother-of-pearl. Here, we meet the last mother-of-pearl business left in France... 

There is only one place in France where you can find mother-of-pearl - or nacre - being worked: the Ile d'Aix, a delightfully natural island off the Charente Maritime coast close to the famous Fort Boyard. It is here that Hervé Gallet, the last nacre worker in France, is preserving a French tradition as well as the family business created by his father Leon in 1952.

Aix can only be reached by boat - either from Fouras, Rochefort or La Rochelle. When you land at the quay, you are first struck by the peace of the island, which allows no motorised transport on its roads. The only sounds are the lapping of water against the harbour walls, the cries of seagulls and the voices of visitors mesmerised by such an idyll. 

The island dwellers come down to meet incoming boats at the port, and it is here that tourists first meet the tall, lean, suntanned Hervé, his ponytail perhaps hidden by a woolly hat on colder days. Leaving his bike propped up against a rail, he mingles wi1h the visitors, distributing information leaflets about his nacre museum as he chats and jokes. This friendly, unassuming welcome sets the tone of amiability that characterises Aix and its inhabitants. 

A traveller himself, Hervé has nothing of the insular spirit that islanders are stereotyped with; before coming home to Aix in 2004 to take the reins of Gallet Nacres. Hervé worked all over the world, mastering more than a dozen professions not only in England, Spain and Germany, but also in Libya, Jordan and Quebec among others. And at 61 years Old, he has plenty of travel ideas ahead of him. So why has a worldwide traveller decided to live and work on the tiny island of Aix?Nacre 2

It all comes down to a fascination for seashells, and in particular that magical matter known as nacre. This is an organic substance secreted by certain molluscs to make an inner shell layer that is iridescent and allows light to pass through its surface, creating a subtle glow. It is composed of hexagonal platelets of aragonite, whose thickness is comparable to the wavelength of white light. Each platelet acts as a tiny prism that breaks up the beam of light and refracts back a rainbow of colour that changes according to the viewing angle. No matter what colour the nacre is, you'll always see green and pink reflected.

"Of the 120,000 molluscs found on Earth, only 900 make nacre. Of these, only 40 are suitable to be crafted, and here on Aix we use the 16 highest quality species in terms of lustre and orient. These all come from Polynesia or the Gulf of Mexico." explains Hervé. Indeed, in one of Aix's stone buildings he has a stock of 40,000 tonnes of seashells waiting to be transformed so that their rough, weathered exteriors can reveal the secret beauty of their interiors.

There are three parts to the Gallet Nacres business: a shop, a workshop and, since Hervé has been in charge, a museum designed entirely by himself Typical of the low-level buildings on the island, the museum and workshop are housed around a decked courtyard and artfully painted in white with touches of fresh blue. Entering the museum is like entering the spiral interior of a seashell. and hints of the shell theme are subtly incorporated into the stands of shells and nacre objects on display - you can't miss the Giant Clam. More than a presentation, the museum takes you through the science and art of nacre and its uses, and finishes on the theme of the preservation of the ecosystem and rock-pooling in safety on the beaches of Aix. In 1952, when Hervé's father Leon launched Gallet Nacres, tourism was in its infancy: only two boats per day serviced the island, each with a capacity for 50 people - a far cry from the 300 000 visitors the island welcomes per year nowadays. Leon came from the island of Re. and when looking for farmland to buy, he was naturally drawn to choose an island; he decided to join the families in Aix. "The great Aix families were often created when a girl and boy from Oléron and Re fell in love." explains Hervé. "The two islands detested each other, so the only choice of island for these couples was to settle down in the neutral territory of Aix."

Formerly a farmer growing vines and Vegetables, Leon was medically advised to drop farming in 1951, so he turned to making figurines from the shells he found on the beaches of Aix. The whole family -his wife and six children - were involved in the business of gathering shells for the dolls, which proved astonishingly successful along the coast. Fascinated by shells, Leon visited the world nacre centre in Meru in the Oise department where he bought shells and spent the next few years teaching himself to work the nacre into jewellery. His wife had the delicate job of sewing pearls onto the nacre discs to make a range of stunning necklaces, while Leon honed and polished shells into nacre in the workshops. Over a period of 8 years, the business grew to 200 employees, and every summer Hervé and his five siblings worked with their parents, learning the trade, as soon as they were 14 years old.

Between receiving his bac and taking over the business in 2004, Hervé returned several times to help out his father during his illnesses, though he was never given the freedom to try out his own ideas. With each return, the business had shrunk due to the desertion of the isle by the population leaving to find work on the mainland. In 1972 there were only 35 people left, at a time when Ll1e world nacre centre in Meru, which had been steadily producing nacre products since 1720, closed down its button facility and left the 12.000 former nacre workers unemployed. Upon Leon's death, his son Alain stepped in. but a director from outside the family became the franchised boss when Alain retired.

When Hervé finally became the business owner, two years later, the company was in a terrible state, with only one nacre employee left. Hervé knew that if he didn't come home to the family business the tradition of nacre work would disappear from the lie d'Aix. So he dedicated his energy to rebuilding the workshop, modernising the range of products and widening it from jewellery and shell figures to table arts and objects with a practical use such as knife holders, game boards, glasses frames, lamps and marquetry. Then he achieved the project he had been trying to persuade his father to take on for the last thirty years- the creation of a museum dedicated to nacre.

Nacre 3

"The more I work with nacre, the more ideas I seem to have," Hervé says. "But it's not just a case of having ideas; you need to find people who are interested in them. When you have an idea you never know whether it's going to work or not, which makes the future difficult to predict." It is not only the ideas and projects sides of his job that Hervé likes, he also appreciates the client contact. No wonder he's down at the port every morning, greeting the tourists! The paperwork side of the business is his least favourite part. However, which means he has no interest in setting up other retail outlets. Apart from his shop on Aix, he sells via the internet to specialists who seek luxury examples of collections. One of his current projects, for example, is working with a local cabinetmaker to create chessboards in black and white nacre. A dislike of paperwork and management is a trait that seems to run through his much of his family, yet tile future doesn't worry Hervé at all: "The whole family has a love for mother-of-pearl. Out of my 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, someone is bound to want to carry on the business," he says. At present, three of the likely candidates are already learning the trade- which means that Hervé still manages to find time to travel and satisfy his insatiable curiosity for crafts and trades throughout the world.

WORDS: Teresa Hardy

PHOTOS: Nicki Wade & Shutterstock

Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine 

 INFORMATION 

Gallet Nacres: Place de l’église, BP 10, 17123 Ile d’Aix

+33 (0)5 46 84 66 17 

The Nacre Museum is open every day and is one of the sites qualifying for the Carte Sésame – this card is given to you on your first paid entry to one of the Rochefort area tourist sites, and it allows you a reduction on the other sites throughout the year.

1st April to 30 Sept 10am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 5pm

July & August 10am to 6pm

October 1pm to 5pm

Entry Fee: Adult 4€, Carte Sésame 3€. Free for under 15.

Find out more about Carte Sésame by clicking here