Today Lalique is to the art of jewellery making what Leonardo da Vinci was to the Renaissance. Jewellery experts commonly refer aspiring students to him and his work. He is the master whose influence is manifest in all the stages of evolution that art nouveau has undergone over the years. Even the name alone is enough to evoke the zenith of style and luxury, not least because his creative flame continues to burn brightly, renewed by the oxygen that surrounds his legacy, namely the modern Lalique Collection.
So how did this master jeweller start out? And what was the source of his artistry?
Well, let’s start at the very beginning – Lalique was born during 1860 in the bucolic Champagne-Ardenne region of France. As is often the case with artistic protégés of that period Lalique wound-up in Paris and soon began to enjoy what Hemmingway would later call a ‘movable feast’. One of the reasons for his great success, besides his obvious talent, was the fact that he arrived at the right time. The Franco-Prussian War ended in 1871 and ushered in an era called the Belle Epoque, which translates to ‘Beautiful Era’. As the name suggests this period of prosperity encouraged a smorgasbord of new pursuits and was generally seen as the catalyst for a considerable amount of revolutionary art.
It was during the Belle Epoque, in 1885, that young Lalique saw the inside of his first Parisian workshop. Having recently lost his father, Lalique dove headfirst into a lucrative stint as an apprentice to the craftsman and jeweller Louis Aucoc. It was then that he acquired his talent for jewellery-making. He also began attending classes at the public university École des Arts Décoratifs, which was a very prestigious institution, especially for art and design. After honing his natural ability Lalique left for England and extended his studies for two further years. Even whilst he was learning Lalique managed to write his name in the sky, acquiring recognition from luxury jewellery houses like Cartier and Boucheron.
In 1887 Lalique took to the business world and began the preliminary designs for his first collection as early as 1888. Even then he could combine the fragility of the materials themselves with a lightness of touch that led to wonderful parures. His work was inspired by the stylings of antiquity and the organic motifs of Japanese art. He was adhering to the traditional aesthetic codes of jewellery making, whilst also experimenting with innovative materials. He was abundantly creative – a singular artist with a propensity for using ornate arrangements of precious stones. At the same time he introduced touches of gold and coloured his designs with semi-precious stones and materials, from mother-of-pearl to enamel and glass.
By 1890 Lalique was becoming increasingly more and more popular. He was only twenty when he opened his third workshop and began to try his hand at being a glass artist. Of course he’d already wrought pieces with enamel and glass, but this was the first time he’d restricted himself to a single material, like an artist throwing out every colour in their palette, bar one. Over the following decade Rene began to cement his reputation, winning several competitions, exhibiting an array of boutique pieces and receiving glowing endorsement from popular stars, like the actress Sarah Bernhardt. He was a favourite amongst vociferous socialites and was also respected by his fellow-jewellers. Throughout this period he surely revelled in the reward of receiving a steady flow of commissions, along with widespread recognition for his lustrous parures and intricate diamond work.
The Lalique-inspired Winged Victory of Samothrace by Yves Klein
When asked about his approach, Lalique said that he was inspired by an innate desire to ‘create something that had never been seen before.’ In 1900 he took part in the Great Exhibition (Paris Exposition Universelle) where he displayed his bronze Femme Ailée sculptures and evinced his flair for sophisticated, graceful and refined art nouveau pieces. This was a significant addition to René Lalique’s oeuvre, not to mention the fact that he was awarded the title of French Legion d’Honneur shortly afterwards.
Funnily enough Lalique also restrained this flair with steadfast dedication to his craft and career. In 1905, at the age of 24, he opened a boutique in the Place Vendome square and began to exhibit supple glass masterpieces. His work was so unique that it attracted the eye of the perfumer Francois Coty, who invited Lalique into the perfume industry and commissioned him to create a collection of attractive and affordable bottles. In one quick flick of fate’s brush he’d been transformed from art nouveau jewellery designer to art deco glassmaker. After years of perfecting this new craft Lalique founded Alsace Glassworks, in 1922, and finally turned his undivided attention to glassware. Today this remains as the only glass production facility still belonging to the Lalique Company.
Over the following years Lalique sweated over his kiln and pioneered various new techniques in glass artistry, shaping his designs with the distinct contrast between frosted and clear glass. Occasionally he would also highlight his lines with a soft patina or alternatively with the sheen of enamel or stained glass. By 1929 he had risen to great acclaim and his work was doing the rounds in what some might call the ‘right circles’. Indeed the name Lalique had become synonymous with luxury and more and more often he was being called upon to handle interior design projects for high profile clients. One such commission involved the decoration of the lavish Cote d’Azur Pullman Express train carriages.
By 1935 Lalique had built an exceptional portfolio replete with a number of project that were sure to turn heads. He went on to decorate haute couture salons for ‘the architect among dressmakers’, Madeleine Vionnet, he designed glass doors for Japanese Prince Yasuhiko Asaka and even contributed a fountain to the Galerie des Champs-Elysées in his beloved home city of Paris. It wasn’t until a decade later, in 1945, that Rene Lalique died. Then it was his son Marc who took the mantle as protector of the Lalique legacy, an honour which was then passed down to his daughter Marie-Claude Lalique in 1977.
Looking back, it seems to be patently clear that Lalique was a very sensitive and unique artist. He used the natural forms that surrounds us to nurture the spirit of art nouveau and to vivify his work – work which has, undeniably, survived the test of time. In fact, in 2012, Lalique’s high jewellery was revived when the l’Odyssée du Feu Sacré Collection was unveiled and jewellery lovers were again treated to hundreds of Lalique-inspired designs, each of which was imbued with the same appreciation for nature and attention to the subtleties of movement.