It is difficult to assign a precise attribution to Pons guitars because individual family members are never specifically named on the luthier’s stamp. There is a five-course guitar branded “Cesar Pons A Grenoble” (the family patriarch), and another six-string guitar branded “L. Pons Grenoble” (likely by Louis-David – one of César’s eight sons) but other Pons guitars are labeled or engraved Pons fils (son), Pons jeune (the younger), or Pons aîné (the elder). There are also examples (e.g. the Pons in this collection) that are simply branded Pons à Paris on the inside of the back.
Adding to the confusion is the misattribution to Joseph Pons by the famed early nineteenth century musicologist René Vannes (1888-1956) in his Dictionnaire Universel des Luthiers – a comprehensive resource guide for stringed instrument luthiers. Vannes contends that Joseph was likely Pons fils (son). Unfortunately, Vannes provides no explanation as to why he believes this is the case and as it turns out, there is no existing record of Joseph Pons other than his birth certificate dated September 25, 1781. It was Joseph’s brother Antoine Pons, who worked in Paris and most likely built guitars as Pons fils and mentored Pierre René Lacote.
It has been confirmed that Lacote apprenticed in the Pons workshop in or around 1810, and the evidence for a Pons family member apprenticing Lacote is based not only on the similarities in their work, but also on the writing found on a Lacote label which translates to: “Lacote successor of Martin, luthier, raised by M. Pons.” It is not clear, however, if Lacote, Guillaume Martin, or both, were “raised” by Pons and it’s possible that it was only Martin. Nonetheless, the similarities in design and craftsmanship help make the case that one of the Pons family members was, in fact, Lacote’s teacher. (Consider the similar decorative locking tuners on the 1834 Lacote presentation guitar in this collection – a Pons design – as another clue to the Pons-Lacote association.)
Antoine Pons left Paris in 1818 for London and stayed for over a decade. There is a single extant guitar marked “Pons London. 1819.” The question is begged as to why only one London-made Pons has survived. Guitar historian Dr. James Westbrook believes it’s possible that Antoine’s London-made guitars had their peg headstocks – affixed with the Pons engraved shield – removed and refitted with tuning machines. This is a plausible theory as the English were early adopters of mechanical tuners, and such a modification would result in a London-made Pons losing its branding. As an example, one of the two Laprevotte guitars in this collection went through a like modification after arriving in in London, evidenced by its unoriginal headstock with machine tuners stamped “Journet of London” on the back of the head. Fortunately, Laprevotte used internal paper labels and this, combined with his distinctive oval soundholes, allows for positive attribution.
Many questions remain including, of course, who was Pons fils, Pons jeune, and Pons aîné?
Catherine Marlat has pointed out that instruments by Louis-David and Pons jeune are different and distinct. It could be that Antoine used Pons fils early in his career and later Pons aîné when he returned to Paris in the early 1830s. (There are two extant guitars labeled Pons aîné from 1832 and 1835.) Perhaps the biggest mystery is the identity of Pons jeune, who worked in Paris during the 1820s and early ‘30s while Antoine worked in London and Louis-David likely worked in Grenoble.
An interesting chapter in the Pons family story features a highly ornate, masterfully crafted presentation guitar known as the “De Monte.” It tells a romantic tale of friendship, tragedy, and discovery.
Empress Marie-Louise (Napoleon’s wife) took possession of a highly ornate presentation guitar in 1812 built for her, likely by Antoine Pons, with Pons Fils, à Paris 1812 engraved on a pearl shield affixed to the headstock. The Empress later presented the instrument to the renowned guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani, who was working under her patronage as a chamber virtuoso in Vienna. Giuliani, in turn, gifted the guitar in 1815 to his good friend and student, Christopher de Monte, a wealthy young English gentleman and the probable dedicatee of Giuliani’s Guitar Concerto, Op. 36.
Tragically, the 22-year-old de Monte took ill and died the following year while returning to England. His belongings, including the Pons guitar, were placed in storage at Coutts private bank in London where they remained undiscovered for some 180 years. It wasn’t until 1996 that the De Monte once again saw the light of day.
The c. 1830 Pons guitar in the Austin-Marie Collection is very neatly branded Pons. à Paris. on the inner back and has many of the unique and defining qualities typical of a Pons guitar. The internal soundboard bracing is rather unique, with two finger-braces added near the bottom of the guitar, one on each side, starting from each bout pointing toward the bridge. It has the usual first-string “finger” brace (necessary for all guitars with a flush fingerboard) as wells as two harmonic bars, and a large diagonal brace. The plantilla is very rounded, something akin to Lacôte’s Legnani-Stauffer inspired design, which filtered down from the Guadagninis of Turin. The back and sides are of the finest Birdseye maple. The mother of pearl inlays are precisely placed and there are a few luxury inclusions, like the mother of pearl tuning buttons and eyelets on either side of the ribbon hole to the top of the head.
The identity of the maker of the Pons guitar in this collection is unknown. Could Antoine have contracted journeyman luthiers to build guitars for sale at his Paris workshop? There are marked similarities – but also differences – in the work of a few builders in the region of Mirecourt in Northeastern France (a large guitar-making center during the nineteenth century) and the Pons in this collection. Additionally, the fact that so few guitars likely built by Antoine have survived suggests that he may have run a relatively small operation in Paris as compared to the multiple ateliers of the Fabricatores in Naples. Antoine’s limited output could either argue for or against outsourcing guitars from Mirecourt or employing luthiers in his Paris workshop.
The craftsmanship of the c. 1830 Pons in this collection is unparalleled and this distinction, coupled with the rarity of guitars by Pons, makes it one of the most collectable of all French guitars.