The History of Golden Era "French" Mouthpieces

It is worth mentioning that when Lelandais acquired the "French" company, they also acquired the remaining inventory. In fact many mouthpiece blanks were branded with the Lelandais logo, but were actually from the prior company's older remaining inventory.  These mouthpieces can be witnessed with logos “Artistic Facing”, and interlocking "CC" logos at the side of the table.  Frequently also branded with “Steel Ebonite” (not to be confused with more recent maker Riffault’s “Steelite Ebonite” logo), they were actually old stock remaining production by the "French" company. Those becoming rare blanks were produced with good rubber and with good design implementation.

Although the best of the golden era mouthpieces were exemplary for their beautiful sounds, a famous "French" manufacturer (name withheld to respect the modern trademark) had a long and convoluted history.  Their proprietorship changed numerous times, and their quality had a turbulent history as well. Sadly, the beauty of sound as produced on golden era "French" mouthpieces is now being replaced by modern "takes" on the ideal.

The golden era was a time of note within the "French" mouthpiece tradition. The 1920s and 1930s entered a sweet spot of mouthpiece manufacturing.  During that time, mouthpieces were machined from high quality super-resonant rod rubber, and the best representations of that era were beautifully made hand-finished mouthpieces which would forever change the way we view the playing experience.  They influenced generations of clarinetists and will be a benchmark of resonance, sweetness of sound, and response, for generations to come.  

In the early days, the "French" produced their best mouthpieces from Grade-A Rod Rubber.  Of particular note is that Grade-A rod rubber was not produced from the cheaper extrusion processes.  It is also very important to mention that the mouthpiece manufacturers during the golden era didn't actually make the rubber that would be the soul of these wonderful specimens.  They were essentially machine shops - setup with mills and lathes.  Of course these machine shops were uniquely equipped with musicians and craftsmen (the mouthpiece makers) who produced blanks from rod rubber—rubber which was sourced by the general purpose Rubber Rod/Sheet factory nearby.  

Rubber changed a great deal over the generations, and the quality of mouthpiece design and of manufacture changed as well. As could be imagined, the war era created chaos in France, and the glorious craftsmanship and manufacturing quality was in disarray throughout that time period. After the war, In the mid-40s, with new post-war rubber manufacturing processes available to the “modern-world”, the manner by which mouthpieces were rendered, changed from a milling process to that of a molding process. Sadly this modern change for convenience caused a severe change in both finish quality and acoustic quality.  Around the transition from rod to molded rubber mouthpieces, Lelandais acquired the "French" mouthpiece company in 1949. Additionally the famous proprietor of the "French" company retired, along with his skill and quality, but Lelandais continued to mold mouthpieces under both the “French” brand as well as their own Lelandais  brand. 

Later, as Lelandais went on in their own direction, creating mouthpiece blanks for many makers around the world, including Delacroix, Bonade, Buffet, Evette and Schaffer, among many others. Their rubber was not of the same origin as pre-war golden era, and their designs were very different as well. Typically, these mouthpieces had more conically shaped bores which had larger exits, their baffles came in numerous configurations, but their chamber volumes were generally smaller as well. These mouthpieces typically required longer barrels in order to play in tune, and after market barrels by Moennig became a common sighting. 

In the 1970s, Glotin acquired the "French" and the Lelandais brands and went on to produce a small number of mouthpieces under their namesakes, but their quality and playability were not that of the prior "French" company's glorious golden-era. Later, in Glotin's final years, during the mid 2000s, American mouthpiece maker CH produced a limited quantity of mouthpieces for Glotin from German sourced rubber, but soon thereafter, Glotin was no more. 

And now the original "French" company's name has been taken. A fourth proprietor, a Georgia businessman, is now making clarinet mouthpieces using the French company's namesake. He took the "French" company's brand name, once cherished in the industry, and prized within the artistic community of performers around the world, and he built his own business. Now under aggressive trademark protection, his is the one and only company which is legally allowed to associate with that "French" name, and that is why we are not using the brand's name directly. We instead refer to it as the "French" mouthpiece company.

So it is important to note that during the "French" company's long history, proprietorship changed four times. And as owners changed, so did the mouthpieces.  

The inspirational sounding, transcendent expressiveness of the mystical Golden Era rod rubber mouthpieces however were rich with resonance, they had impact, color, and were full with life and character. It is our focus here to illuminate the source of our inspiration, the best of the best, the historical mouthpieces of the golden era which gave us our purpose and our mission.

But before we begin, it is important to define some of our assertions so you can better understand our perspective.

1. Rod rubber resonates better than molded rubber. 

Rubber's “cure-process” requires heat. High quality rubber is essentially natural rubber latex mixed with sulfur, and then cured. The result is a very stable hard material with great acoustics. The process however comes with a few significant difficulties. Most rubber manufacturing processes have two volatile stages (extrusion and cure) in which swelling, distortion and backrind are significant issues. Here we will address the second stage: cure.  

In order to stabilize the curing process, fillers and accelerants are frequently added to the mix. These foreign materials do reduce volatility and distortion during the rubber's cure, but they alter the beautiful resonance characteristics of its acoustics. However, producing rubber in rod form for machining allows us to eliminate the bad stabilizing chemicals from our list of ingredients. We simply don’t want the negative resonance that those stabilizers yield. Therein lies the simple beauty of the rod rubber machining process. We use rod to allow our rubber (which is actually cured within a clamshell mold) to expand, bulge, experience “flash” or backrind, all in the good name of resonance. In the end, Behn rubber may not look beautiful in its rod form; our rods may not be perfectly straight, their expansion process during cure and cool down may have caused them to warp a bit, but that’s no problem for our machines, and it is great news for our resonance. We simply cut our rods into billets for machining and celebrate the beauty of sound that our material’s old-school formulation provides.

2. Extrusion-free rubber resonates better than extruded rubber.

The extrusion process precedes the cure, and it is the process of forcing a mixed rubber formula under heat and pressure through a suitably shaped nozzle or die into the pre-cured rod shape desired. This gives the manufacturer the ready-made rod shape needed for their cure. Just as in modern molded mouthpiece production however, extruded rubber also requires fillers to prevent charring from occurring as it works through the extrusion machine's extreme heat and pressure. These fillers, although different than the ones used for stability during the cure, also have deleterious effect over resonance, in that they slow down the response and take the sweetness out of the sound! Behn Mouthpieces determined that the only way to make authentic GRADE-A, Quality Rod Rubber that is a true match to that of the very best rubber used in the very best mouthpieces of the past, required the production of extrusion-free rubber, made in small quantities under our supervision in a laboratory.  No other maker produces rod rubber in this same method. Our way, just like they used to, produces the best sounding rubber possible!

So, not all rod rubbers are the same. While 1920s golden-era mouthpieces were made from rubber rod stock, they were not all made from the same quality rubber. In fact, many of those old mouthpieces were not extraordinarily good! This was most likely because the "French" mouthpiece company used a "bad" batch of rubber from time to time.

Rubber was produced with grades. Grade-A had the fewest foreign materials, required the longest cure, happened to have the best acoustics, as it omitted the stabilizing ingredients and accelerants required for cheaper grades.  Grade-A sounded good, but it wasn’t readily available, especially during the turmoil of the pre-war era. Remember, the golden era was within and following WWI.  Naziism was on the rise, and Fance was a country with many layers of survival complexity. It is actually an amazing achievement that the music industry, the factories involved in making the world's finest instruments remain to this day, considering what they endured. Also, rubber was the wonder material of the day. It was used in countless objects, from dentures to book covers, ornate carvings and sculptures. It was under constant product development, and although a great deal of science and energy was dedicated to its cause, the industry’s interests were far from the acoustic interests of a “small” music company. And so the "French" company didn’t always have the good stuff on hand; they simply used rubber that was available to them. So not all "French" mouthpieces, even from the golden-era, were of the same material quality; they weren't all made with the same quality of rubber, the same inner and outer design, and they didn't all achieve the ideal playing experience. A truly great pre-war, golden-era mouthpiece was rare, even during the best of times, but when the parts were all there, the sum exceeded expectations.  It inspired generations of clarinetists to come. 

The Golden Era and the Cousins

Proprietors of the great "French" company had a rich musical pedigree. By the turn of the Century, France and Germany had already secured their positions as nations with the greatest musical instrument manufacturing traditions, and the "French" company's family was well within that melting pot. Their acoustic and scientific explorations and their skills at making and improving musical instruments were at a high level. The "French" company's family was well embedded in the instrument repairing and manufacturing tradition, and by the early 20th century, they well known. Cousin Edmond was an instrument maker, the "French" cousin was a mouthpiece maker, and the "American" cousin was an instrument technician and mouthpiece artisan. 

In the early 1900s the "American" cousin moved from France to New York and later became a US citizen. Due to his pedigree, and instrument repair skill set, he earned employment with Selmer. Later, he moved to Philadelphia and opened his own shop where he served area musicians with repair services as well as mouthpieces for sale.  Additionally, he acted as importer of sorts for his cousin’s "French" mouthpiece company by brokering for instrument companies within the US. Some Bettoney mouthpieces were in fact appointed through his shop, they were beautifully prepared and although rare, they were well within the scope, design, and material designation to achieve golden-era status.

 

In the early 1920s, the French mouthpiece cousin started his mouthpiece company in Paris, France. He utilized his pedigree and skills to manufacture mouthpieces, using rubber rods as his material foundation. Although he didn’t have access to the highest quality rod rubber on all production runs, and because his well-made mouthpieces received a great deal of hand-finishing, there were consistency issues which would be expected. But the bottom line is that from the mid-1920s through the 1930s, the "French" company's effort became a benchmark in mouthpiece design and manufacturing—the golden era. Even so, the very best and rarest mouthpieces of the golden era were a combination of luck (receiving Grade-A rod rubber of ideal acoustic properties), and skill (producing mouthpieces from rod rubber with hand finishing techniques that maintained superior bore and chamber volumes). 

 

In addition to mouthpieces branded with his name, the "French" cousin made mouthpieces for instrument companies to include Bettoney, Leroy, Robert, Meliphone, Barbier, and Couesnon. All of those offerings had the possibility of yielding excellent results, but again it is important to note that the "French" company only rarely acquired optimum performance Grade-A ebonite, and they didn't always strike the optimum balance of design, and acoustic performance. That is to say that even though those mouthpieces also originated from the "French" factory, that fact alone is not a guarantee that those mouthpieces were of the ideal quality. But those additional brands did on occasion yield extraordinary results and are therefore due notable mention. Among our favorites were Leroy, Robert, and in some cases, Bettoney. 
 

Based on much observation and analysis, it is our assertion that the "American" cousin and the "French" cousin did not share the same concept for the ideal mouthpiece. Although the "American" cousin hand adjusted his mouthpieces for clarinetists from all around the east coast (and therefore it is a very difficult thing to evaluate his ideals versus his clientele's), but through years of experience and exploration it is our assertion that he preferred mouthpieces with slightly smaller chambers than his "French" cousin preferred. By virtue of a smaller chamber, the "American" cousin's ideal yielded more tonal choice. It gave him room to increase bore size, and achieve a larger sonority. But it all had to be balanced properly for a good intonational experience. His smaller chambers kept pitch in check (with the larger bore), but they also contained resonance in a way that made for a marvelously nimble playing experience. And herein lies the beauty of the "American" cousin's craft. He managed to get the best of everything. He received top level mouthpiece blanks from his "French" cousin, he selected the ones with smaller volumes, he selected the ones made from A-quality rod stock, and he beautifully handcrafted his super-blanks to his ideal (a wonderful concept, as evidenced by his wonderful output, no doubt). He then worked with his clientele by voicing his mouthpiece's sound to the playing style of client. 

 

Generally, his best efforts were those where he didn’t take too much material out of the chamber, and he expanded sonority by carefully increasing bore size until everything responded properly. So by increasing bore dimensions, the "American" cousin created body of sound, warmth of tone, and sonority. And by maintaining smaller chamber dimensions, he invited nimble, responsive, and resonant characteristics with a great balance of stability, flexibility, and tonal concentration.  

Sadly, the "American" cousin passed away in the early 1930s. His son (and apprentice) took over the business, but it seemed to fade in short order. The "French" cousin continued with his mouthpiece company until retirement in the late 1940s.  The "French" company and Lelandais merged in 1949, and the golden era of mouthpieces was no more.  

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