The Golden Age
For centuries, Liège was the most important firearms forge in the world. Already since the 16th century, weapons were produced here for both military and hunting purposes. But the city on the banks of the river Meuse experienced its heyday between 1814 and 1914. It was the so-called “L’age d’or – the Golden Age” in which the number of arms manufacturers increased steadily. While in 1816 there were only 36 manufactories, in 1856 there were already 97. This number doubled again to 177 by 1884, only to peak in 1909 with 195 manufacturers. Between 1889 and 1913, around 12,000 people worked in the Liège arms industry. They manufactured a total of 30 million firearms, the majority of which were exported. Around 1900, Liège produced more firearms than St. Etienne and Birmingham combined. With the increasing industrialization in the second half of the 19th century, the development of the city was accompanied by a growing number of industries. At the beginning of the 21st century, competition also became fiercer. In 1889, therefore, several manufacturers joined forces under the name of “Les Fabricants d’Armes de Guerre Réunis”. It later became the “Société anonyme Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre” – abbreviated “FN” – which still exists today and has developed over time into one of the largest arms manufacturers in the world.
Gunmakers and Engravers
Besides the art of gunmaking, another craft also reached its peak, that of engraving. Because fine hunting weapons have always been decorated with great pleasure. With an artistic engraving, the desire for aesthetics and individualisation is equally fulfilled. Even early matchlock muskets were engraved with ornaments – an art that was developed further and further in the following epochs and reached its highest perfection in the magnificent weapons of the great French gunsmiths such as Nicolas Noël Boutet and Jean Lepage.
In order to meet the great demand for skilled workers in the arms-industry, a special school was founded in Liège in 1897, the “Ecole d’Armurerie Léon Mignon”. There were trained both gunsmiths and engravers. This institution was supported by the arms manufacturers, the State and the Province and the City of Liège. The school quickly developed into a talent factory that provided the necessary young talents and produced numerous excellent representatives of both disciplines. Today it is one of the last three training centres of the gunsmith trade in Europe, alongside Suhl and Ferlach.
After the Second World War, the arms industry in Liège also reached a low point and recovered only slowly. But by the end of the sixties of the last century, the Fabrique National already employed 180 engravers again. There, in the heart of the luxury weapons production, a unique studio for these artists was established from about 1926. Under the direction of master engraver Felix Funken, it was mainly custom guns, i.e. weapons made to customer specifications, that were elaborately engraved and chased here.
But the sixties and seventies of the last century were turbulent times – not only politically, but also for the gunsmiths of Liège. The time of the great small game ranges was finally over. There were fewer and fewer hunters. Automation increased, and competition from abroad became stronger. Many countries also tightened their gun laws. As a result, the demand for high-quality hunting weapons and thus also for engravings decreased more and more. The FN had to lay off most of its permanent engravers and instead commissioned work from the artists who were now working freelance.
Art or craftsmanship
For a young man named Alain Lovenberg from a small village in the Ardennes, the question of a professional future arises in these turbulent times. While his father would like to send him to university, the son dreams of becoming an artist.
So he makes his way to Liège and enrolls at the art academy there. However, the strongly political, anarchic and slightly ramshackle atmosphere of the ’68s that he found was not to his taste, and so he quickly left.
A few days later, by chance, he came across a newspaper report about the upcoming beginning of the semester at the Ecole “Leon Mignon”. He particularly likes the picture of a revolver, which has been artistically engraved by René Delcour, one of the professors of the school.
The very next day Alain sets off and spontaneously enrolls, because he likes the working atmosphere there much better than the hustle and bustle at the art academy. At the Ecole “Leon Mignon”, artistic and handicraft work is concentrated and committed. Alain became a student of Jean Dossin, one of the two professors of engraving and chasing. The other one is the already mentioned René Delcour.
Alain Lovenberg has found his calling. The subject matter fascinates him so much that he literally becomes a workaholic. After classes, he volunteers to work late into the night, and after just one year he has completed the three-year workload. During this time he learns all the methods and techniques of classical engraving. The focus of the training is on the “Liège School”, which uses slightly different techniques than the “Anglo-Saxon School”. As a good engraver, Lovenberg of course masters both equally, but his love is the “method liégoise”, as whose incarnation he still calls his highly esteemed teacher Jean Dossin.
From the axe to the graver
However, after successfully completing the training, it is initially difficult to start a career. The fatherland calls, and Alain has to do his military service. After the end of his service, however, the young engraver is somewhat forgotten by the gunsmiths and manufactories. He was forced to earn his living as a lumberjack in the local Ardennes. Only the chance encounter with an arms manufacturer, who gives him the chance to show his skills, leads him back to his beloved profession. Alain quickly became successful with his work, and soon his name was well known among the gunsmiths of Liège.
First Liège and then the world
Lovenberg initially worked for the smaller manufacturers Cordy and Duchateau. Next station is the noble gunmaker Lebeau-Courally, known for its fine shotguns, which has always been one of the first addresses for lovers of fine hunting weapons. It is here that he develops all his skills in the following years and creates numerous timeless masterpieces.
His artistic engravings can still be found today on several shotguns and rifles of the luxury gun manufacturer. Despite all his success, Lovenberg always stays in Liège. He refuses offers from renowned English companies. His heart beats for Liège and the traditional gunsmith trade of this city.
In the 1980s he met the two German gunsmiths Gerhard Hartmann and Otto Weiss for the first time. The owners of the already then world-famous German luxury gun label Hartmann & Weiss are enthusiastic about his work and entrust him with the engraving of their masterly rifles. A congenial cooperation developed which continues to this day.
Engraving – A world of luxury
“Engraving always means luxury”, emphasizes Alain Lovenberg when talking to him about his profession. The most important thing for an engraver, therefore, is above all access to the circle of those who can and want to afford such luxury. The typical customer for elaborately and artistically engraved and therefore very expensive guns is typically male, businessman or wealthy collector and belongs to the highest income and social class. But how is a simple engraver, who lives exclusively from his hands, supposed to get in touch with this very discreet clientele – which also comes primarily from abroad, namely the USA, England, the Gulf States or Russia?
This problem is solved for Alain Lovenberg when he gets the opportunity to accompany his colleague Philippe Grifnée to the USA to meet some of the most important hunting gun collectors. In fact, he receives some very interesting commissions from them, and soon the name Lovenberg is a synonym for the finest engravings even beyond the borders of Belgium. Today every luxury gun aficionado worldwide knows him. He works for private clients as well as for renowned hunting gun manufacturers. As far as technique and style of his unique engravings are concerned, he never allows himself to be pigeonholed, but is rather famous for the versatility and masterly execution of his work in the most diverse styles.
“A good engraving is first and foremost characterised by perfect craftsmanship, sophisticated design and careful composition”, explains Lovenberg. “The rest is inspiration – that “certain something” that ultimately decides whether you find a work of art more or less beautiful or interesting. The overall concept is decisive. All parts of the engraving must be in the right relationship to each other. This is not easy, especially with a weapon, as it is a very specially shaped object. But no matter from which angle you look at it: It must look beautiful.” In view of the almost breathtaking works of the master, “beautiful” is rather an understatement. The special thing about Lovenberg’s engravings is that they never appear ostentatious or exaggerated, even when up to five different types of gold are used in the most lavish manner. The overall impression is always harmonious and highly aesthetic. Simply “beautiful”!
When you visit his spacious studio in the countryside near Liège, you will find this great man of his profession to be an extremely likeable, calm and courteous man – someone who is well aware of his outstanding skills and the special value of his work, but who does not make a fuss about it, let alone boast about it. With regard to his clients, Lovenberg is absolutely discreet. The names of wealthy clients from the USA, Russia or the Gulf States remain unknown. On the other hand, it is no secret that star director Steven Spielberg had a Colt revolver engraved by him and that he artfully decorated a hunting rifle for King Hassan of Morocco.
Today Alain Lovenberg is one of the five best and most sought-after engravers in the world. His works are in great demand. Weapons refined by him achieve top prices at the relevant auctions. In fact, they can sometimes even prove to be very good investment objects, as it is not unusual for their prices to double. For example, a rifle, originally purchased for 160,000 euros, was resold ten years later for 300,000 euros. Normal gun owners do not even dare to dream of such increases in value. Whoever now wants to have his gun revalued without further ado should bear in mind that true beauty has its price. Luxury starts at around 20,000 to 30,000 euros. The sky’s the limit. And another luxury good plays a role, namely time. Because the work is extremely complex and the capacity of the master is limited. The waiting times can therefore easily be several years.
Even after more than 50 years in the profession, Alain Lovenberg does not rest on his laurels, but still dedicates himself to his art with great passion. Engraving has always been more than just a living for him. He also sees himself as a link in a long chain of men who have continued this craft, which is as much a part of Liège as the manufacture of weapons, despite all the adverse circumstances to this day. The preservation and cultivation of this great tradition is particularly important to him. As a very personal contribution he would therefore like to share and pass on his profound knowledge of the art of engraving and chasing. For years Lovenberg has been supporting further education measures of the government. In 2008, 2012 and 2017 he taught master classes in the USA with great success. And this year, for the first time, he is offering his own engraving courses for beginners, advanced and master classes in his studio in Durbuy.
A great offer – because where else does one get the opportunity to be initiated into the secrets and subtleties of his art by one of the greatest of the guild.
In this way, Alain Lovenberg is making a major contribution to ensuring that the magnificent art of weapon engraving will remain closely associated with Liège in the future.