Let There Be Light: Choosing the Right Antique Chandelier

by Bill Rau

Few things command a room and evoke a sense of splendor quite like a great chandelier. For centuries these magnificent crystal, bronze and colored glass creations have served as bellwethers of wealth and status, adorning the great halls and dining rooms of Europe and all far reaches of the world. So which is the right chandelier for your home? Before you decide, consider the history of this most functional art form.

 

Let there be light

Before all else, there was light and dark. The discovery of fire around 400,000 b.c. profoundly changed the course of human history. Managed fire meant warmth and protection...and light when and where there was once only darkness. Early civilizations revolutionized lighting with the inventions of tallow lamps, wax candles and, by around the 7th century, the chandelier.

The word chandelier derives from the French term for candlestick, and in the beginning chandeliers were not much more than large candleholders. The earliest chandeliers were simple crossed timbers suspended from the ceiling and outfitted with prickets or spikes to hold wax candles or cups for oil and a wick. Despite their simplistic form, however, chandeliers were generally only found in places of worship, and later in the homes of the very wealthy.

In these very early days, light after dark was a true luxury. Candles were expensive and tallow and oil lamps were smelly and smoky; so for most of the population, life was ruled by the rising and setting of the sun. In fact, one could often gauge someone's wealth by the number of candles burning after dark.

While crossed timber forms remained in use through the 15th century, they gave way to magnificent iron or brass hoops of single and multiple levels. Gothic designs were rendered in metal and carved wood. The Dutch introduced the curly-armed brass chandeliers around the 15th century and variations of these designs flourished for centuries.  It wasn't until the late 17h century, however, that the truly great chandeliers emerged.

 

The age of the chandelier

For centuries, the artisans of the Venetian island of Murano had enamored all of Europe with their amazing glass confections. Around 1700, they began creating incredible glass chandeliers whose colorful decorations cast a mesmerizing glow wherever they were hung.

Cut glass and lead crystal chandeliers from the great English and French glassmakers soon followed. By the 18th and 19th centuries, spectacular chandeliers had become the crowning glory of manors, castles and cathedrals around the world. Makers such as Osler, Saint Louis and Baccarat vied to create theses wonderful fixtures. They were, indeed, the ultimate status symbol.

Chandeliers during this time ranged from light and airy Neoclassic examples to solid creations literally dripping with crystals. Their form was only limited by the skill and imagination of the artisan, who employed every medium from glass, silver, bronze and brass to porcelain, wood, antlers and rock crystal.

There are so many variations from which to choose it can be daunting to find just the right chandelier...and, while there are no hard and fast rules about which you select, there are a few guidelines.

 

Finding the right chandelier

There are many things in your home you probably replace every decade. Curtains, appliances, bed linens and even your sofa are often replaced as they wear or your tastes change. The chandelier, however, is often a permanent fixture and thus should be chosen with extra care and consideration. Buy the right chandelier, and chances are, you'll only have to buy one. Buying the very best you can, even though it may cost a little more, will be a very wise long-term investment.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when choosing a chandelier is buying a fixture that is too small. Don't be afraid to hang a large chandelier. Let the room be your guide and don't become a slave to your measurements. My father used to say he could always tell when someone was at the mercy of an inferior interior designer when they came into our gallery with the preset measurements for their future chandelier.

Don't fall into this trap. The only measurement that really counts is the height. Otherwise you must see how big a chandelier feels...not how big it is. For example, a simple Neoclassic bronze chandelier will feel much lighter than its Rococo counterpart, even though they might share the same measurements. Likewise a lovely fixture adorned with just a few crystals will feel much lighter than a fully embellished Venetian glass chandelier.

Most of our clients buy a chandelier for their dining room and there are a few rules of thumb to follow when buying such a fixture. First, your chandelier should hang approximately 60" to 66" from the floor. That's roughly 30" to 36" from your table. The scale or size of your chandelier depends on a number of factors such as the height of your ceiling, the number and sizes of windows in the room and the size of your rug.

You should also consider the size of your table, and the scale of the table.  A classic English pedestal table will certainly require a different style and scale of chandelier than would a heavy carved oak table. These are just a few of the things in your dining room that will frame your chandelier.

When it comes to the foyer, there is no "right" size or height for a chandelier.  How many windows are in the foyer? How is the stairway situated?  What is the size of the foyer? Is there an interior balcony? These factors will make a big difference when deciding on the perfect scale and position of the chandelier. Once you have decided on the fixture, I strongly recommend that you are physically present and that you orchestrate how it is hung...you will certainly make a number of adjustments before settling on that perfect height and placement.

If you decide on an antique chandelier, there are a few considerations. First, buy from a professional, or make sure you check all wiring on the fixture. Most antique chandeliers are wired on the outside of the arms. If the wiring looks frayed or worn, it's a good idea to have a professional electrician or lighting expert rewire it.

Consider purchasing a ceiling medallion to accompany your chandelier. While these decorative elements aren't absolutely necessary for hanging your chandelier, they can provide a finishing touch to your room, and are very handy at covering holes in the ceiling created by an old fixture.

Without question, a great chandelier can make the room. It can mean the difference between having a beautiful room and having a breathtaking room.

This exceptional chandelier by Baccarat features opaline glass, cut crystal and ornate doré bronze. Circa 1850

This exceptional chandelier by Baccarat features opaline glass, cut crystal and ornate doré bronze. Circa 1850

Expressive and figural, this rare French 8-light oak chandelier was carved in the dramatic Baroque style. Circa 1880

Expressive and figural, this rare French 8-light oak chandelier was carved in the dramatic Baroque style. Circa 1880

An ornate and truly magnificent example of a large Venetian glass chandelier. The work on this chandelier is exceptional to the tiniest detail. On each facet of this glass garden, stunning depictions of daffodils, alstroemeria, rosettes, buttercups and strawberries all twinkle under the 26 lights. Circa 1880

An ornate and truly magnificent example of a large Venetian glass chandelier. The work on this chandelier is exceptional to the tiniest detail. On each facet of this glass garden, stunning depictions of daffodils, alstroemeria, rosettes, buttercups and strawberries all twinkle under the 26 lights. Circa 1880

A gorgeous example of Napoleon III-era artistry, this chandelier exhibits several hallmarks made famous by Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, including a rich cobalt blue background and a lovely handpainted Baccchanalian scene. Circa 1870

A gorgeous example of Napoleon III-era artistry, this chandelier exhibits several hallmarks made famous by Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, including a rich cobalt blue background and a lovely handpainted Baccchanalian scene. Circa 1870