The magazine of material culture

Inside Geneva's Catala Antiquités


A suitcase with scarves

Writing & photography by Jaimie Stettin

Marie-Christine Catala is looking for lightness.  After nearly forty years of running her own antique shop in Geneva, Switzerland, the sought légèreté is literal and otherwise. While she still spryly navigates her intricately-packed and well-loved boutique, at a few years past seventy, Catala is ready to forego some heavier pieces of furniture and objects that are overly ornate. 

Catala delights in the details of her work and can recall about eighty percent of her collection at any given moment, including an item’s provenance and its location in the store. With hundreds of articles in the shop, this is a feat, impressive for anyone. Catala does not use (nor has she ever) a computer for inventory. It’s all done by hand, her hand. 

Scissors at Catala Antiquités

Each item within Catala Antiquités is chosen deliberately, not necessarily because Catala thinks it beautiful, (though that can be the reason) but because it speaks to her in some way, whether for its charm, its uniqueness, or even its color. In particular, Catala adores objects with concealed compartments or hidden features, like a gorgeous pair of 18th century French étuis—small, decorative cases, often gold or enamel, containing miniature tools for sewing, eating, or applying cosmetics (like proto Swiss-army knives in more ornamental packages). She is equally pleased by a contemporary pop-up children’s book about insects, and she smiles at the vibrant surprises on each page.  Discovering these secrets requires almost childlike curiosity, daring, and playfulness, and Catala happily admits having to all the above characteristics. Of course, finding these kinds of treasures also requires an eye, which, having been raised by an antiquarian mother, Catala developed at an early age, and sharpened throughout her life by visiting antique fairs and flea markets.

An 18th century French étuis

It was not until her late twenties that Catala chose to turn her penchant for antiques into her career. Recently married and working as a secretary, the 27-year-old Catala decided that she’d rather be in a line of work where she wouldn’t have to depend on anyone. She wanted to be her own boss and she did not want to worry about losing a job. She left her husband and in turn made her foray into the world of brocante with a flea market stand, and eventually a booth at an expo. In 1978, she shared her first store space, and in 1980 she finally settled into her current shop on Boulevard Georges-Favon, not far from the Plain Palais, the location of Geneva’s main flea market.  One step at a time, Catala found, acquired, and designed her namesake shop: Catala Antiquités.  Her maiden name, which harks back to family roots in French Catalonia, remains proudly painted, in gold, on the storefront.  At roughly 300 square feet, the boutique, previously a tobacco shop, is exceedingly cozy. It’s always step-by-step for Catala, and this sentiment is concretized in the unique set of stairs she had built to reach the small upper mezzanine she built to accommodate a more of her wares. The staircase is split in half, with the right and left sides staggered, so one must move gingerly, one step at a time. It’s a fitting metaphor, for in Catala’s life and work­­—almost inseparable—there’s a rhythm to the everyday.
A blue glass pitcher at Catala Antiquités
Up the careful stairs is Catala’s perch: her office full of reference books and small craft projects. With a strategically placed, glass-framed illustration by a favorite artist, Catala can see the reflection of anyone who walks past or into her shop without having to move.  It’s ingenious, another hidden gem of the boutique, though this one is concocted by Catala herself.  Just as she relishes the view from her lofted office, Catala enjoys her country of residence and doesn’t feel a need to leave often.  Her life, she explains, is enriched with the stories of all her findings, and she does not feel drawn to explore distant countries. She was born in Paris and raised in Moulins, a community in the center of France, but has lived in Switzerland since 1968, where she is quite at home. Besides occasional visits to France, where she keeps a home in the Loire Valley, and to the Netherlands, where her daughter and grandson reside, Catala does not indulge much in foreign travel. Also, Catala adds, that even while surrounded by beautiful objects–some of quite high value–her life is not one of luxury.

Marie-Christine Catala

 “I’m more cotton than silk,” she says, while contentedly unfolding a stack of Hermès and Dior scarves, pieces she admires but would never wear. Indeed, Catala, tall and lovely, is unadorned except for a pair of glasses (a necessity); drop pearl earrings (replicas of those immortalized in a Vermeer painting); and a silver ring (her mother’s, from the thirties, once gold-plated). Catala’s long gray hair is twisted simply into a chignon. She wears slacks and a long sleeved knit top, with a button down smock over it. She smiles. This is her uniform. This is Catala.