north of neutral dialog

July 1, 2010

by anne lueneburger

Jacques Bon, Owner, Estate Mas de Peint, Camargue, France

Summer of 2007, on the back of Marjan, a typical light grey Camargue horse, I faced a group of bulls with upward sweeping horns staring at me, with nothing but a few yards of grass between us. I felt an instant rush of adrenaline… but as I learned later, bulls respect horses as superior in the ranks of animals and do not charge them.

This was second nature to 83-year old Jacques Bon, the charismatic and energetic owner of the estate Mas de Peint with whom I spoke this spring. Sadly, Jacques Bon passed away shortly before I posted this dialog. Nevertheless, his legend continues and this story is testimony to a life fully lived.

The role

Born at the Mas de Peint, a 17th century manor in the heart of the Camargue, about 22 kilometers south of Arles (where Van Gogh painted his famous piece ‘Le Café de Nuit’), Jacques Bon developed the former 1,200 acre farm into a world-renowned estate, which – in addition to significant agriculture and cattle farm operations – offers a pristine four-star resort and restaurant that organizes special events and welcomes guests from around the world.

Bon possessed a unique and potent mix: profound knowledge of farming combined with a deep passion for land and livestock, and the charisma of a man who never shied away from hard work.  His vision was complemented by his wife Lucille’s talent as an architect and interior designer, and their 24 year-old son Frederic’s innate ability to assume leadership of the agricultural operations.

An early turning point

The second youngest of five children, Bon vividly remembers how, at the age of 15, he was told by his local school principal “to leave the school and to focus on what he can do best: grow carrots.” Deeply hurt, returning from school that day, Bon decided to never look back. He joined his father and side-by-side, until his father’s death eight years later, he learned the trade of farmer on the leased lands of the Mas de Peint, which at the time belonged to the Famille Blain, a wealthy family situated in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

When he shares this story of the insensitive principal, almost 70 years later, Bon also acknowledges that most likely this painful experience allowed him to master the trade early on and prepared him for his next milestone.  At the young age of 25, Bon successfully negotiated and purchased the Mas de Peint. No longer a renting farmer, he was now a proud landowner. Over the next 27 years his estate prospered and was one of the largest proprietors of sheep and cattle in the Provence.

Over the years, Bon stayed in contact with his previous landlord and in 1979 – against the advice of his peers – sold the vast majority of his 14,000 sheep and purchased the Blain’s main residence in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the beautiful Châteaux des Alpilles. This historic manor house has rich history, dating back to medieval times. On its premises, during the 19th century, the Blain family had entertained France’s top political and literary personalities. With the purchase of the Château des Alpilles and its surrounding lands, Bon became one of the most prominent estate owners in the South of France.

In 1983 he married his second wife, Lucille, the architect that had helped him to develop and sell the land around the Château des Alpilles and they moved in together at the Mas de Peint. Jointly they renovated this farm that much resembled its original layout and décor, and in 1994 opened their doors to host individuals and groups.

Since then, the Mas de Peint has expanded and built a reputation among travelers as a “hidden gem.” It has been widely featured in global publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Elle Decoration, or in the book 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. And ever so present in all the different features was Jacques Bon, also called by his admirers ‘Jacques le Bon’ (Jack the Good One).

Over the past decade, the Camargue has seen the effects of the green movement, and it is no surprise that organic restaurants like La Chassagnette and organic wineries have surfaced in the area. The Mas de Peint is in the heart of this trend towards a sustainable life style. Jacques Bon shared, ”I always have projects; this is what keeps me going. Organic farming is one of our core interests. We are currently conceptualizing an Ecolodge, allowing visitors from outside to come and both make a positive contribution to the environment during their stay, but also to take away the urgent call to preserve our habitats and to make living sustainable.”

Moments of pause

Evolving as an individual and building his legacy also had a more painful aspect to it, including personal sacrifice.  After almost 30 years together and raising two children, Bon and his first wife Françoise had decided to call it quits shortly after purchasing the Château des Alpilles. As a result of this separation, Bon left the newly acquired estate to his first wife and their two grown children and returned to the Mas de Peint.  His voice takes on a more somber tone when he reflects, “I changed as a person over the course of my life and career. Unfortunately my partner and I did not grow in the same direction.”

Building a legacy

“Tout en faisant mon travail, je me régale.” Bon is heard saying on a clip on youtube (roughly translated: “I love what I do”). Ever the clever businessman and visionary, Bon possessed an innate instinct when it came to matching passion with commerce. He was authentic in what he did, and his legendary love for horses serves as the best example.

In his early days, Bon’s dream was to be a ‘Cavalier’ (term for ‘cowboys’ that herded cattle on horseback). He offered his services as an ‘Amateur’, working at other farms without pay. Laughingly, he shares that the love of his life was Plume, a horse he saved from the slaughterhouse and that was his loyal companion for almost 20 years. ”Plume would follow me around like a dog; she was never far. While he was a lively horse, he would not move when he had our two year old son on his back.” Plume was buried in the garden of the Bon family.

To this day, the Mas de Peint welcomes amateurs watching over the 250 heads of cattle that graze between rice patties and fields of wheat. In addition to using his horses for the farming operations, Bon built a riding stable and the Mas de Peint offers hotel guests the opportunity to go on trail rides.

Being true to himself greatly contributed to the charisma at the core of Bon’s legend. Often seen on horse back until his last days, he was also called the “John Wayne of France” and the “Clint Eastwood of the Provence.” Bon is a remarkable example of prospering while living true to one’s passions.

What is more, Bon did not wait until ‘ripe age’ to build his legacy; instead he continuously and relentlessly built and lived it throughout his inspired life.

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