• Claude Laurent Crystal Flutes

    by  • March 13, 2011 • Claude Laurent, Flute, Non-Saxophone

    Here’s a little departure from the saxophone world. Allow me to talk about flutes, for a bit.

    First, I am not a flute player. I have difficulty even getting a sound out of one. My sister, on the other hand, was a pretty decent flute player. Additionally, as one of the administrators for the Woodwind Forum, I’ve researched more than a few non-saxophone instruments. Also, something that appears “expected” of most saxophone players in a “big band” jazz setting is that they should be able to play flute. That means that I’ve at least been around some flute players for a large percentage of my playing career and/or my Internet career.

    The subject at hand is Claude Laurent and his crystal flutes.

    As a starting point, you’ve got to know that the Claude Laurent flutes only bear a passing resemblence to the “knick-knack” crystal flutes of today (like the ones at hallflutes.com, for instance). These are both historic and historical instruments that were made in the first 2/3rds (or so) of the 19th century — and, if you want to buy one, expect a 5-digit price tag.

    So, why should you care about Laurent and his flutes?

    On November 21, 1806, Claude Laurent was awarded French patent number 382 (note: I have a document that claims patent 236):

    “[A five year patent for a flute made of crystal glass] (translation from Google translate):

    “CLAIMS: After searching for a long time for means for remedying the well-known variation in the various tones of flutes, due to variations in the hygrometric condition of the atmosphere and to the moisture in the player’s breath, and also desiring at the same time to give this instrument a tone of clearness and perfect purity, the inventor has discovered that cristal (glass) is a proper material, as it gives sounds of the sweetness and purity desired, and also renders the tones invariable, and makes the instrument convenient and easy to play.”

    (I’m sorry to say that all the patent search engines I tried do not go back to 1806. If someone happens to find a copy of the actual patent/patent application, please contact me.)

    Further, the Dayton C. Miller article goes on to say,

    “[The patent] author explains that it is well known that flutes of wood and ivory are much affected by the alternate dry and moist conditions to which they are subjected; and as especially as there are long intervals where the flute may not be used. Glass, on the contrary, is not affected by humidity and always preserves the same dimensions, and combines with this a constant tone quality and an elastic capacity which renders the instrument more sonorous and easier to sound.”

    Now, the “crystal” used in the Laurent flute is really the French word “cristal.” While I do know that it’s also a brand of champagne, it refers to “clear white glass of superior quality” and not “rock crystal,” like quartz. It’s also not exactly a new idea, as there have been crystal instruments around since at least the 16th century. However, it’s still a nice idea. Hey, why not make a horn that’s not going to be affected by blowing into it and losing its intonation? However, that’s not the historic part. Let’s continue with the patent description from Dayton C. Miller:

    “The patent explains that in overcoming this, at the same time the instrument was rendered more perfect as to its musical qualities. These improvements consist of silver tenons and sockets for joints …”

    Again, a nice idea. Not necessarily a new idea, but an immensely functional one. Metal joints, called “caps,” are used on a lot of woodwinds, even today. Hey, my wife’s 1981 Selmer Signet 100 clarinet has them. They also allow you to have an instrument that you can take apart, which makes life easier for your repairman and more convenient for you, as you don’t have to lug around a really long case.

    But wait. There’s more:

    “… [and] mounting the keys in silver posts attached to metal plates which are screwed to the tube, the steel pins on which the keys turn are tempered and polished and permit a perfect fitting ….”

    That’s a completely earth-shattering idea.

    While it’s obvious to you and me that if you want to mount keywork you need, well, a mount. This wasn’t obvious in 1805. If you wanted to put a key on an instrument, you formed a little “bump” in whatever material you were using and affixed a key though that (see, well, all of the flutes under the heading “First Generation English 6-8 Key Flutes” at www.mcgee-flutes.com). With this one sentence in a patent, all woodwinds became MUCH easier and less expensive to produce and allowed manufacturers to add on more keys. As a matter of fact, Boehm’s 1832 flutes and his fingering system would have been almost impossible to make. Just imagine one of these with formed wood or ivory pivots. Take a look at the video at www.interencheres.tv (around the 1:20 mark), even if you don’t understand French. They do a side-by-side comparison of a Laurent flute (specifically, the one owned by Napoleon III) and a contemporary flute with the “formed” pivots. Same amount of keys, but the Laurent flute looks much, much more modern.

    Another thing that’s overcome by using glass and the “steel pins” is that you do have a much tighter fit for the keywork. Let me use a quote, because I’ve found a lot of good ones. I’m going to translate and transliterate from the Dutch:

    “… [T]he invention had an additional benefit, namely an improvement in the setting of the keys above toneholes, making a system that had hardly any lateral play. This allowed the key to provide a much tighter and consistent seal on the tonehole.”

    So, you’ve got a flute that’s “impervious” to humidity problems, keywork that’s cheaper and easier to make — but allows for a tighter seal around a tonehole. And it’s pretty. Good combination.


    Claude Laurent Crystal Flutes
    Library of Congress, Dayton C. Miller Collection.
    Production Information
    1806 – 1848. Less than 200 survive.
    Keyed Range
    Variable. No less than 3, no more than 8.
    Available Pitches
    C piccolo, C flute, Db flute and possibly others.
    Available Colors
    Clear (“White”), Uranium Green, Cobalt Blue.

    I really don’t need to write anymore about Laurent, because other folks have already done more than enough research. Let me just give you some recommended reading, viewing and listening:

    “Flutes of Glass” by Dayton C. Miller. From The Flautist, Vol. 6, No. 7. July 1925. Pages 151 to 155. The entire article is online and contains most of what you should know about Laurent flutes.

    “U.Va.’s Rob Turner Plays James Madison’s Glass Flute.” News release; June 11, 2000. As in, President James Madison. Some interesting history and information about a CD that features a Laurent flute.

    “Library of Congress Loans Rare Crystal Flute for Madison’s 250th.” Office of Media Relations, James Madison University. March 9, 2001. A bit of a parallel to the above article, but a different player (Carol Noe). See also this article.

    “Une flûte en cristal.” Video of Bruno Kampmann talking about Napoleon III’s flute. June 7, 2007. French language. I mentioned this video in my above ramblings. Even if you can’t speak French, you’ll appreciate the comparison of a Laurent flute to a contemporary 19th century flute.

    “Partant pour la Syrie, by Paula Bär-Giese.” Played by flautist Dario Lo Cicero. Video of an 1807 clear (“white”) fluted crystal flute being played in a duo. Somewhat low quality, but one of the very few videos of the Laurent flute.

    “Madison’s Crystal Flute.” NPR, Morning Edition, March 16, 2001. RealAudio clip of the radio program. Very much worth listening to.

    “Phil Unger and the Flute Center of New York (Part 2).” Flute Focus. July 1, 2009. 1837 clear (“white”) fluted crystal flute. 5 or 6 keys. Silver keywork and bands. Good pics, but a little small.


    I’m known for pictures, of course. Here are some of the largest and best:

    David and Nina Shorey Antique Flutes. Three excellent examples with commentary and lots of close-ups. Do not miss these!  (Updated links on 06/03/12.)

    The Library of Congress: The Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection. 16 different Laurent flutes (large pics):

    New on 01/02/2012! From www.citedelamusique.fr:

    New on 02/20/2012! From Musical Instrument Museums Online:

    New on 10/24/2012! From the Royal Museums of Art and History:

    From a few miscellaneous websites (several added on 10/24/2012):