Le Silex – Pianos Past and Present

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Edelweiss Pianos is one of the few remaining British piano makers. The company hand-builds bespoke acoustic self-play pianos at its workshop just outside Cambridge.

studio photo of The Silex - front on with lid open
Le Silex from Goldfinch by Edelweiss

Its models include a grand piano, an upright piano, and possibly the world’s smallest baby grand. There’s also a specialist yacht piano constructed to handle the world’s various climates.

As they are built to order, all Edelweiss pianos can be customised to suit the client’s requirements.

Goldfinch, Edelweiss’ specialist design team, also create some of the world’s most “fantastical” one-off art-case instruments. These look like no other piano you have ever seen. Other Goldfinch by Edelweiss (as the brand is known) instruments include: The Crystal Piano (a Steinway covered with over half a million Swarovski crystals; The Leaking Piano (which melts over a balcony), The Baby, The Solis, and Harmony of Nature.

studio photo of The Silex from the side with the lid open

Goldfinch by Edelweiss’ latest creation is Le Silex (sometimes referred to as The Silex).

‘The design of Le Silex came about whilst on a countryside hike. I stumbled over a piece of flint and marvelled at how one side was exposed and exceptionally shiny while the surrounding exterior was rough and grey. It looked beautiful and I considered if this could be translated into a piano sculpture’.

Mark Norman, Design Director Edelweiss Pianos

Outlines for Le Silex have sat in the Goldfinch design vault for some time – images of a verdigris finished instrument appeared back in 2018. However, a US-based client approached Edelweiss wanting a piano that would complement the view from their property — a spectacularly rugged landscape. And the Silex concept, with some modification, seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

Natural Innovation

Goldfinch’s pianos tend to have a natural authenticity about them. Most are as much sculpted as built. A weathered liquid metal “vibe” plays a big part in some of the designs, and the finished products have a special kind of texture and solidity. Le Silex is no exception.

“Silex” was originally a Latin word meaning hard rock. It originally referenced silicates such as flint and chert, often finely ground. Nowadays it describes heat-resistant glass made from quartz, and also silica / siliceous material often used as filler in paints or wood.

Le Silex is a hybrid. Essentially it’s an acoustic piano, but also functions as a digital keyboard, and incorporates the proprietary self-play system. All the controls are neatly secreted within the casework.

a look under the lid of The Silex
Le Silex: lid mechanism, frame and strings

The lid, when open, reflects the sound back towards the player. This enhances the sound experienced by the pianist, but as a result, there’s no place for a standard propstick. Goldfinch’s engineers consequently developed a special mechanism positioned at the piano’s heel, designed to hold the lid’s considerable weight.

Le Silex took over a year, and some 5000 man-hours, to build. The price paid for the instrument is confidential, but Goldfinch by Edelweiss’ pianos typically sell for between $500,000 and $1.5million.

Edelweiss Pianos has two UK showrooms. One at its head office near Cambridge, and the other at Harrods (Knightsbridge, London).

Website: Goldfinch by Edelweiss.

Honoré Baudre’s Silex Piano

Interestingly, as reported in an early edition of The Mechanics’ Magazine, Honoré Baudre, a Frenchman, also created a “Silex Piano”, but this was back in the 1850/60s. Certain rocks when struck produce a sustained note of a fixed frequency and of remarkable clarity. Listen to an example of this here.

Baudre, who was also an accomplished musician spent more than 30 years (from 1852 to 1883) collecting flints from the chalky soils of Haute Marne, Périgord, Nord, Eure and the Paris Basin (all regions of France). His definitive set comprising 26 perfectly tuned stones provides a range of two octaves.

lithograph showing Baudre on stage with the Silex Piano
M. Honoré Baudre playing the Silex piano

These were suspended horizontally on a row of wires. A soundboard was positioned just below the flints, and the stones struck by two smaller hand-held flints.

Baudre toured France and England with the Silex Piano. In 1876 he gave a special performance at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in Cavendish Square, London.

Although known as the Silex Piano, it is classified as a lithophone (a subgroup of the idiophone family – instruments that create sound by the vibration of the instrument itself). A piano is classified as a chordophone – producing sound by vibrating strings.

One intriguing aspect of Baudre’s Silex Piano is that the size/weight of the flints didn’t correspond to their pitch. The stone that produced the bottom note weighed around 2kg (approx. 4.4lbs), whilst the next note – a semitone higher – was nearly 4kg, and the next just 500g. A 1500g flint, say, can produce exactly the same note as another weighing maybe 600g. This has not been explained. Also, if a flint is split in two, it will no longer “ring”.

There are several other extant examples of this type of instrument including The Musical Stones of Skiddaw. And it is thought that forerunners to this Silex Piano were amongst the first prehistoric “musical” instruments.


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