Jules Piel was born on 1 October 1882 in Paris, France. He started his education at the École Estienne in 1900, but was soon encouraged to try and be accepted in the School of Fine Arts in Paris. He succeeded in getting there after four years of hard work. There, he joined Jules Jacquet’s class, but because he had to earn his living, making commercial engravings, he but rarely had the time to attend class. But Piel did make time to try and win the coveted Prix de Rome, the French scholarship to enable young students to go and study in Rome. In 1908 he came second, but in 1910 he was the winner of the Grand Prix. Piel absolutely loved his time in Italy, but unfortunately for him, his time there was cut short in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. Piel returned to France and spent the next couple of years in the armed forces.
After the war, he did manage to return to Italy to finish his studies, and he stayed there until 1920. Back in France he settled down to married life and a career in commercial engraving. He engraved illustrations for a few books, notably Le Cantique des Cantiques and Lettres de Mon Moulin, but soon he dedicated himself solely to the engraving of postage stamps and banknotes. It was his friend Antonin Delzers who introduced him to Mr. Demoulin, Head of the Stamp Department. Demoulin employed Piel to engrave a number of letterpress stamps for colonies such as Middle Congo, Sudan, Saint Pierre et Miquelon, etc.
Jules Piel’s first stamp was a French stamp portraying Victor Hugo, issued in 1933. Subsequently, Piel assisted with the introduction of recess-printing with the new Chambon presses. That was a difficult start for it was hard to achieve the great quality which the department aimed for. But Piel loved the work and found that the relief effect of the printing was so much more satisfying than the flat printings of the letterpress methods.
His obvious talent soon earned him national recognition. In as early as 1935 he was given the title “Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” (one of the best craftsmen in France). The laurels would become ever more elaborate, with Piel receiving the national order of the Légion d’Honneur in 1937 and again in 1947, but this time of a higher rank, and the Ordre Nationale de Merité in 1976.
Jules Piel continued engraving stamps when France was occupied during the years of the Second World War. In fact, he was one of the most prolific stamp engravers during that time. His most iconic stamp of that time was a stamp set portraying Marshall Pétain, issued in 1941.
Among his extensive oeuvre - he engraved over 150 stamps for France alone, and many more for the French colonies and other countries - the ones that really stand out are the annual Red Cross stamps. From 1950 onwards, France has issued an annual set of stamps with a surcharge for the Red Cross. All issues were engraved by Jules Piel, up to and including 1966, which was the last year Piel was employed as an engraver.
When studying these Red Cross stamps, it becomes clear why Piel’s engravings were –and still are - so loved and appreciated by both fellow engravers and the general public. The exquisiteness of Piel’s work is his ability to make his subjects ooze warmth and charm. This comes to the fore on stamps such as the beautiful engraving of Princess Grace and Princess Caroline on the 1958 Monaco issue to mark the birth of prince Albert 1954 and the French issue portraying the French Postmaster General Lavallette. Piel won the Grand Prix de l’art philatélique for that engraving of Lavallette. But he also managed to depict tourist scenes in a most pleasing manner. Popular examples of these are the 1938 stamp depicting the Papal Palace in Avignon and the town of Carcassonne, from the same set.
In the mid 1950s, Piel was asked which French stamps of his he was quite pleased with. Piel cited the 1939 ‘La Lettre’ charity stamp for the Postal Museum Fund, followed by his 1950 two Red Cross stamps. In the same interview he also said that he liked engraving portraits the most, followed by nudes and landscapes.
In 1963 Jules engraved a test stamp for the French firm Marinoni who were the main supplier of rotary presses for the French stamp printers Atelier du Timbre. He engraved a test stamp designed by Pierre Gandon, entitled Lafayette.
Jules Piel was also allowed to engrave various Marianne definitives, which is usually regarded as the greatest honour for a French engraver. He engraved no less than three different Mariannes. The first one was the Marianne de Muller set introduced in 1955, followed in 1959 by the Marianne à la Nef stamp, and finally Piel engraved the Marianne de Decaris stamp of 1960. Unfortunately all these Marianne stamps were printed in typography. A final definitive Jules Piel engraved, also to be printed in typography, was the 1960 bicoloured version of the famous Sower stamp.
Apart from his stamp work, Piel was also known for his engravings for banknotes. Before the Second World War, Piel also engraved a number of banknotes for Greece, Romania and Indochina. Among his more notable French banknotes Piel especially liked the 5000 and 10,000 francs notes from the 1945-1957 issue, the so-called Terre et Mer and Genie Français notes, and the 500 francs Victor Hugo banknote which was issued in 1954.
In 1953, De La Rue in London asked Piel to engrave the portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. This was a trial to see whether his work would be suitable for banknotes. Piel, like many other French engravers, was known for creating very fine engravings, too fine in fact to be used for banknote printing, which requires a deeper engraving. So in the end, the two pieces were never used on notes but instead De La Rue included them in a presentation album of theirs called The House of De La Rue.
Jules Piel passed away in Orléans, France, on 19 September 1978.
You will find Jules Piel's database HERE.