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Webster’s dictionary defines “mercer” as a dealer in textile fabrics however this is the British definition of an old French word meaning a trader in goods or wares (including the textiles) which comes from the Latin. French mercers (merciers) played an important role since the twelth Century especially in the trade of imported goods. During the 17th and 18th Century they were active in the distribution of luxury goods made in Paris and other regions of France. They were both wholesalers and retailers and ranged in size from very small scale to large enterprises which could involve capital financing and credit. The area around the rue Saint Honore in Paris is still known for trade in the luxury markets.


The glory of Louis XIV is most linked to two projects which were advancing the military and the building of Versailles which required enormous sums of money. No one was exempt from the tax system including the clergy or the nobles. There was a true income tax and a tax on property value to support the military. The Minister of Finance under Louis XIV was Jean-Baptiste Colbert known for establishing a mercantile system of state sponsored manufacturing to promote production of luxury goods industries such as the Royal Tapestry Works at Beauvais. The system protected inventors, invited skilled workmen from other countries and forbade French skills from leaving the country. Workers had to maintain the highest level of quality under the laws. Huge sums of money were invested in the luxury goods markets and those markets flourished although like any markets there were ups and downs.


The European market for Oriental goods boomed during the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Holland was the primary source for providing Oriental porcelain to French merchants. The Dutch shared with the Chinese the monopoly on these goods and controlled the market through the Dutch East India Company. The French formed the Compagnie des Indies in 1664 which resulted in the direct trade with the east. The mercers developed a market for porcelain not only by importing but by adapting and redesigning these simple objects into beautiful wares adorned with gilt bronzes. They followed the same trend in marketing lacquer goods for European tastes. Lacquer is a strong varnish made from the sap of the lac tree, known in the Far East for three thousand years. Oriental lacquer originated in China but the Japanese perfected the use in the 15th century.

The Japanese painted the delicate designs in black or gold lacquer in contrast to the Chinese who used a technique where the surface is incised and filled with colored lacquers. Chinese lacquer was shipped by way of India’s Coromandel Coast where the English had a port. In the 17thcentury Japanese lacquer cabinets were imported and beautiful high giltwood stands were made by French furniture makers to present them. During the early 18th century these cabinets were presented on lower French giltwood stands with pronounced feet which were a new form similar to the feet of the new “commode” form. In lieu of doors the interior drawers were revealed with Parisian gilt bronze hardware as well as gilt bronze mounts along the sides of the cabinet. This was also similar to the design of the new French commode form (chest with drawers).

This commode form of two to four rows of drawers made easier the storage of clothes and finery rather than using trunks or coffers. Introduced at the very beginning of the eiteenth century they would soon be found at use in almost every room. They could also be adorned with Asian (Japanese) lacquer panels or Chinese Coromandel which the marchand- mercier would supply to a furniture maker. Stocking pieces of lacquer to be used this way whether just imported or recycled from another piece of furniture or screens was quite common however very expensive. Only the finest high value panels were removed from an original form and used on Parisian commodes, desks, tables and cabinets.

Smaller pieces were sold to the makers of small objects such as boxes to be made up as little treasures. The lacquer panels supplied was glued or inset into the new furniture form by the cabinet-maker sized so it could accommodate the lacquer. Only the most skilled cabinet makers were entrusted with Japanese lacquer because it was so difficult to cut and easily damaged. The edges had to be skillfully integrated into the decoration by the furniture maker using a French lacquer technique and finally adorned with the gilt bronze mounts which concealed the joints.


In both the case of the porcelain and the lacquer markets the mercer’s role as retailer of imported goods expanded to a wide range of activities. They played an important part in the transformation, adaptation and embellishment of the imported Oriental decorative arts. They controlled the design process by changing the forms of basic objects into many different types of goods and had a huge influence on the tastes and whimsy of the time. In the area around the rue Saint Honore these merchants were central to the development of a luxury sector. This is but a very brief accounting of the mercers’ activities importing from the Orient. This trade also includes textiles and shall be the subject of my next piece about the “mercers” or merciers-marchands.

About the Author

Mary Helen McCoy

Mary Helen McCoy

Mary Helen McCoy is a woman with a mission – that is, to deliver to her clients the ultimate in period furniture and decorative arts. Her firm is considered one of the nation’s premier sou...