Located in the heart of Ancenis district, Harpes Camac has many hidden treasures. We were able to see behind the scenes of the only classical harp maker in France. Report through images.
To get to Camac Harps, follow the signs to Mouzeil, a small town in Ancenis district. The outside doesn’t do justice to the hidden wonders inside!
At the door we are greeted by Jakez François, President of Camac since 2000. He takes us to a showroom at the end of a corridor decorated with Harcourt portraits of the greatest harpists, including Marie-Claire Jamet, sponsor of the Harpes au Max festival. Majestic harps enthrone a platform down the entire side of the room. Jakez François then gives us a presentation on the history of the instrument and the company.
Harpes Camac was founded on 1 April 1972 by Joël and Gérard Garnier, though the harp is an ancient instrument, whose origins are almost impossible to identify. Prehistoric men supposedly invented its ancestor by trying to amplify the sound of the vibration of their bowstrings with calabashes. In France, Marie Antoinette, a harpist, contributed to the success of the instrument. The pedal harp – or modern harp – appeared in 1812. It was not until the 20th century that the number of strings on the classical harp was fixed to 47 strings!
Jakez François then described the different parts of the harp – first of all the neck where the mechanics are to be found, then the soundbox which amplifies the strings’ vibration, the soundboard and then the column to connect these two parts. Finally, the strings, without which the harp can’t make music. The thickest of these are made with steel, which make the lowest notes and gut and nylon for the finest strings.
After this introduction to the instrument it’s off to the wood warehouse, where it all begins. Huge tree trunks, almost entire trees, are stored here, next to planks which have already been worked on. Impressive! Jakez François enthusiastically tells us about how only the best wood is chosen to build his harps. This is carefully selected in heart of the Austrian forests, on the slopes where the trees grow very slowly. Here, maple, chosen for its looks, can be found in large quantities. It makes up the main part of the harp. Stained or left natural, it is sometimes decorated with gold leaf. Spruce is also found here which the soundboards are made from as it is well-known for its resonance. A harp is made up of around fifty pieces of wood.
Back in the main building, we are enveloped in the smell of wood chips. Here we are in the joinery, surrounded by all the usual equipment. In this room, the wooden blocks gradually take shape, a neck here, a column there…
At the back we see a strange machine. Controlled by computer, it is able to pierce, cut and engrave with minute precision. We are watching the engraving of the name of the harp on the wood.
Leaving the joinery, we see a few necks waiting to be equipped with the mechanics and soundboxes hung up to dry between coats of varnish. We arrive in a room where the various parts of the instrument are stored and assembled. Tight clamps hold everything together while waiting for the glue to dry. Some parts are finely decorated – Harpes Camac works with a local artist, a painter from Champtoceaux.
Once assembled, the instrument must be varnished. This is a step that can take a very long time. A normal harp has at least five layers of varnish, but for some models, this can be up to twenty. The steps of varnishing – drying – sanding – varnishing – drying can take one to three months, sometimes longer. The last layer is the most painstaking – no dust particles can be left. The varnishing takes place in a closed and isolated room, where no-one other than the “varnisher” is allowed.
The tour ends with the assembly shop for the parts of the neck, which number almost 2000! When all parts of the harp are assembled, it has to be played and tuned to achieve a “French” sound. The only classical harpmaker, the company also manufactures extremely light carbon fibre harps made to order. Another of the company’s strengths is its excellent worldwide after-sales care.
After celebrating its 40th birthday at a festival in Ancenis in 2012, Harpes Camac is preparing to repeat this musical experience and fully endorses Harpes au Max in May. The date is set to resonate with enjoyment alongside the harps.