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What is an Artisan?

Say the word ‘artisan’ to someone in the UK and they’ll think you’re about to try and sell them an expensive loaf of bread from a ‘boutique’ bakery. Come to France and you’ll see signs saying ‘Zone Artisanale’ pointing towards large industrial estates that seem to promise nothing but warehouses and white vans. So, what IS an artisan exactly? We’ve been finding out…

For a lot of British people, the word ‘artisan’ is typically said in relation to things we eat. As self-declared ‘artisan bakers’, The Flour Station, admit in a blog on celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s website“It’s a term you see a lot in the food world these days, along with ‘craft’, ‘fresh’ and the vaguest of all, ‘real’. They’re usually used to signify care, expertise and quality of ingredients.”

Why the Rye Smile? (sorry, pun totally intended)

Unfortunately, for a lot of us, the term has also become something we associate with over-priced goods and underhand marketing – and it’s hardly surprising why. Back in 2011, Good Food World reported on the rapidly growing use of the word ‘artisan’ as a way of describing food items, including supermarket bread, mass produced frozen meals and even pizzas from large fast food chains! They offered this explanation as to why that might be happening:

“The authentic meaning and application of artisan alludes to a simpler time when people took pride in their craft: It’s about special and unique. Today, the draw for real artisan products is born out of a movement deriding overly processed, mass-produced foods linked to big corporations… in practice, when companies use artisan as a moniker they are attempting to create a shortcut to denote higher quality and premium”

The Real Deal

So, are the French trying to hoodwink us with their use of the word ‘artisan’, too? In short, no. In fact, it’s not always used as a deceptive marketing ploy in the UK either. Take a look at the actual definition of the word, as given by the mighty Oxford Dictionary:

NOUN. 1. A worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand.
Eg. ‘Street markets where local artisans display handwoven textiles, painted ceramics, and leather goods’

The word ‘artisan’ can be used in reference to all sorts of trades (including all of those listed right here at Artisan Central). It’s important to note, however, that although the word can be used in this way, in the UK, it generally isn’t – instead, we tend to use words like ‘tradesperson’ or ‘craftsperson’. And perhaps that’s because it’s not a word the English invented…

The Art of Labelling

The word ‘Artisan’ is a French word which came into existence during the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford Dictionary, having evolved from the Latin word ‘artitus’, which itself comes from the word ‘artire’ – to ‘instruct in the arts’.

So, can we describe them as artists, too? Strictly speaking, no – there’s an important difference between an artisan and an artist, hence the existence of both words. Who better to explain the distinction than the people behind the appropriately named website, differencebetween:

“The key difference is that while the product or output of an artisan has a clear functional value, this may not be the cased for an artist. The output can be an expression of the beauty of art itself without having any functional value.”

That said, there’s no denying that many of the things made by certain artisans aren’t just functional, but objects of beauty, too (check out Bespoke Makers’ guest blog listing 10 of the best ideas for using off-cuts of oak!).

It’s Official!

For the French, ‘artisan’ isn’t just their preferred way of referring to a tradesperson, or a skilled craftsperson – it’s the legal way. There’s no marketing nonsense going on here, just a plain and simple description of someone’s line of work, with it being one of the four main professional business groups in France (the others are commerçants, professions libérales and agriculteur), as real estate website, French Property, explains:

There are around 250 artisanale activities, which can be divided into four main categories:

i. Food Processing – As well as the manufacture of food and drink products, this category includes the retail sale of meat and fish in specialist stores and on market stalls.

ii. Building and Construction – As might be expected all building trades are covered here, but it also includes alarm installation, civil engineering, mining and quarrying.

iii. Manufacturing – The whole range of small-scale manufacturing activities, other than food, are contained within this category, eg. textiles, furniture, clothes, machinery, printing.

iv. Services – Finally, there is the category of ‘services’, which includes repair and maintenance of vehicles, florist, removals, taxi, hairdressing, antique restoration, cleaning, and beauty care.

So next time you see a sign pointing towards a Zone Artisanale or pick up a flyer or business card for someone purporting to be an artisan of some sort, you needn’t doubt them, whichever country you’re in. Unless, of course, it happens to be a large pizza chain or a mass manufacturer of bread!