Ear” broken, “brain” cracked, “voice” gravelly… Planted on pallets, under neon lights in raw, many divas injured waiting to be rescued. In Trémentines, in the Maine-et-Loire, the company Bodet restores the old bells, “living” heritage worn by time. From the top of their belfry, “they repeat the same movement, decade after decade. Then the bells will wear out, lose resonance and can break. Our goal is to make their profile and they sound original,” explains Jean-Luc Ferrant, managing director of Bodet bell.
Crouching on the concrete, in a white shed to the bone blue king, he reviewed his ten boarders: “Here, this is the flying, which, to the force of hit, dug the metal”, slice-t-it. The second bell “even a crack”, long gash open back on the dress. “This one has lost an ear”, diagnostic, Jean-Luc Ferrant, pointing the handles in silver intended to suspend the 750 kg of metal.
Bodet has already repaired more than 1100 bells since 1991, sent to the most impressive in the special convoy. SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP
Marie-Josephine, Marguerite, Purple… In a few weeks, these singers secular enrouées have found their voice, thanks to a welding process that is unique in France, patented in 1991 after two years of research by Bodet.
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Behind a sliding door, a blower hums in the workshop. In the white jumpsuit and hood, Christian, one of the two welders, deciphers the inscriptions engraved in the metal. “Melanie-Cornélie, founded in 1890, is covered with a revealing purple used to detect cracking. Lying further down on a metal bed, another bell reveals its entrails. “The first step is to remove the part damaged, to reveal a metal safe”, explains Jean-Luc Ferrant, flicking a trench shiny on the copper-green-gray. “Then, you put it in the oven,” says Christian. In the massive case, the temperature gradually climbs “for hours” until you reach “several hundred degrees”, but it remains a “trade secret”. “A few degrees too much and the bell would melt,” warns the welder.
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After that blaze, comes the weld: “I have 45 minutes before it cools!”, haste, Christian, enveloping the bell blackened of aerogel blankets. Assailed by the heat, but concentrated under his mask, he makes up the soldering iron. A glow cyan futuristic invades the workshop. It will still be a need “to iron the bell in the oven, for the solder to take”, the grind to reshape the curvature, reconstruct the ornamentation and the brush, to bring it back to its bronze color.
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It takes at least two weeks to repair a bell and the 120 employees repair, install and also belfries, clocks and associated mechanisms. Old or born in the Middle Ages, weighing 200 kg or several tons: Bodet has already repaired more than 1100 bells since 1991, French or european (primarily Spanish) routed to the most impressive in the special convoy. The final invoice varies from a thousand to more than 10,000 euros. Only two european competitors, Lachenmeyer (Germany) and Royal Eijsbouts (netherlands) are also capable of repairing these ladies of brass. “Given the state in which they arrive, we are proud to offer them a second youth,” says Tanguy, 39 years old, also a welder.
Restoration of a beating in the workshops Bodet. SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP
About 150,000 bells resonate in France today, notably on the occasion of the Christmas festivities. They are mostly distributed in 50,000 towers. Musical Instruments and works of art, of which 5,000 are classified as historic monuments. Destroyed by the thousands in the Revolution, massively melted down during the two world wars, only a few thousands of them are three centuries old. Of the bells, “forgotten”, usually belonging to the municipalities, are regularly found at the bottom of the towers by a mayor alerted by its inhabitants or associations.
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“Then we will rediscover the names of the families related, the coat of arms engraved in the metal, and it retraces their history!”, an enthusiastic Jean-Luc Ferrant, citing with pride the bell of Sidiailles in the Cher (centre), founded in 1239 – it is the most ancient in France – and was restored in 2000, or those of the abbey-church of Conques in the Aveyron (south), renovated this year. “This valuable heritage must be kept alive, argues t-it. Because even if the religious practice is decreasing, the French are very attached to their landscape,” which “provides benchmarks and rhythm to their lives”. “Sometimes people say to us: “I have been baptized under this bell, my grandchildren are married”, and are happy to hear them again,” enthuses Christian. Clutching a remote control, Tanguy suspends “Violet” to the tickle of his diapason. A vibration fills then the space. It is sounded for a further two or three hundred years.