Extravagant and sublime, the jewelry René Lalique designed at the turn of the 20th century makes him one of the most brilliant creative artists of Art Nouveau in France. In 1910, his work too often copied, Lalique abandoned jewelry for his second passion, glass, which he had already dared to use, as intaglio or cameos, alongside precious stones. Even earlier, in 1905, at the request of the industrialist François Coty, he had invented another form of glass artistry—perfume flacons. Eventually he became the most multifaceted maître verrier of his time, adorning the luxurious automobiles of the Roaring Twenties with translucent mascots in the form of hood ornaments, decorating the railroad cars of the Orient Express and the first class dining room of the ocean liner Normandie.
This year, the company he founded is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Lalique’s birth in beautiful style. It has reissued iconic crystal objects such as the legendary Bacchantes vase, with its frieze of classically graceful nudes; designed, for an exceptional woody/Oriental perfume, a serpent flacon in a limited edition of twelve; created a white gold necklace with 812 diamonds and emeralds from an original René Lalique sketch; and sent around the world a carafe containing a 64-year-old Macallan whisky—the oldest ever produced by that famous distillery—before consigning it to Sotheby’s in New York for auction.
And the best is yet to come. In spring 2011, a museum dedicated to Lalique’s extraordinary double career will open at Wingen-sur- Moder, in Alsace. At the age of 50, Lalique switched gracefully from the profession of artist/artisan to that of industrial designer. Although mass-produced—he filed for about 20 patents—everything he designed was always distinguished by the highest esthetic standards.
After World War I, Lalique’s ateliers in Combs-la-Ville, southeast of Paris, became too small for his needs, and he installed his factory in the village of Wingen-sur-Moder in the northern Vosges. He chose that site partly to take advantage of the renowned savoir-faire of the region’s glass workers, but also to benefit from government incentives intended to make the Alsace and Moselle regions, newly recovered from Germany, showcases for France. His employees numbered more than 150 between 1924 and 1925, on the eve of the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, and reached 300 by 1939. Today Wingen remains the only place that Lalique crystal is produced.
The new museum, designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, is situated a stone’s throw from the Lalique glassworks, on the former 18th- and 19th-century glassmaking site of Hochberg. Incorporating some century-old buildings, the museum’s structure harmoniously blends stone-covered concrete and glass.
On show in this “lieu de mémoire” will be unique pieces of jewelry and glass belonging to the new museum’s permanent collection; loans from private collections and other museums—Lalique’s work figures in some 40 museums worldwide; and lost wax sculptures, drawings, photographs and workshop displays of different stages of fabrication. Since the company’s production is ongoing, visitors can also see the creations of the founder’s descendants: his son Marc, who definitively abandoned glass for crystal; his daughter Suzanne Lalique-Haviland; his granddaughter Marie-Claude; and the work of the present-day design studio—since 2008 Lalique has belonged to the Swiss company Art & Fragrance.
While René Lalique the artist, a relentless worker gifted with inexhaustible imagination and technical virtuosity, is well known, the private person remains mysterious. Portraits show a dark-haired man with great presence and an intense look. He was also a seductive man who made many feminine conquests. In 1890 he met the woman he would marry several years later, Alice Ledru, the daughter of sculptor Alphonse Ledru, who had been a close friend of Rodin. “She was his inspiration,” says the new museum’s curator Yvonne Brunhammer. “Until her death in 1909, he created a totally new style of jewelry that combined, with surprising unity, the influences of his era: the naturalism he shared with those who drew inspiration from the Middle Ages, like the 16th-century ceramist Bernard Palissy, and from the Japanese; the use of enamel, which was inspired by the Chinese style but with more transparency; and the highlighting of the structure of the piece, following the principles of Viollet-le-Duc.”
Born in Ay, in the region of Champagne-Ardenne, Lalique started his apprenticeship in Paris at the age of 16, with the jeweler Louis Aucoq. After taking courses at the Ecole des Arts Décoratif and studying for two years at Sydenham College in London, he decided, on returning to France, to devote himself to jewelry design. Before he began crafting his pieces himself, he furnished designs for a number of manufacturers and merchants. In 1889, as an anonymous collaborator of jewelers Henri Vever and Frédéric Boucheron, he took part in the Exposition Universelle. But his goal was to leave the beaten path, to succeed in “creating something never seen before”.
It wasn’t long before Emile Gallé, a pioneer in the Art Nouveau revival of furniture and glass design, designated Lalique “the inventor of modern jewelry”. Nature is the primary motif in most of his necklaces, brooches, bracelets and pectorals: wasps, owls, bats, roosters, frogs, snakes—as if the artist, reliving his childhood vacations in the Champagne countryside, was re-creating a wildly beautiful vegetal world inhabited by a magical bestiary. Flora and fauna inspired him, and the female form was a constant—delicate creatures, hybrid figures, sensual and sometimes disturbing…
In his settings, opals, semiprecious stones, ivory and enamels predominate. He invented fabulous combs in blonde horn, sculpted and engraved. Those who wore these daring marvels were not shy—for example, art patrons and collectors Martine de Béhague and Marie-Louise Arconati-Visconti, or the American writer Natalie Clifford Barney. Barney received from her lover, the demi-mondaine Liane de Pougy, an enamel-and-moonstone ring in the form of a bat. Later it was the turn of the poet Renée Vivien to cover Barney with treasures signed Lalique: “She made me wear them on my neck, my arms, my fingers and my ankles.” (Souvenirs Indiscrets)
For actresses Julia Bartet and Sarah Bernhardt, Lalique designed stage jewelry. Those encounters opened the door to the theatrical world, just as his friendship with the socialite and art critic Robert de Montesquiou gave him access to the elite Proustian world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. His clients belonged to the aristocracy, the worlds of the arts, business and politics. Among them were several collectors including Calouste Gulbenkian, the Turkish-born Armenian financier and petroleum magnate, and Henry Walters, president of the Atlantic Railway Company, who in 1904 bought all the Lalique jewelry on display at the World’s Fair in Saint Louis, Missouri. (That collection is now at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.)
In December 1918, during a state visit to Paris by President Woodrow Wilson, his wife Edith was presented with an official gift: a Lalique brooch with eight olive branches set with diamonds and eight glass doves. Later, the vases, carafes, hood ornaments, clocks and lamps that came out of Lalique’s workshops between 1920 and 1931 were all wildly successful, as were the flacons for perfumers including d’Orsay, Worth, Houbigant, Molinard and Roger&Gallet.
Unsurpassed in his mastery of the craft, Lalique seemed to switch effortlessly from the opulent and sinuous designs of Art Nouveau to the streamlined and angular look of Art Deco. Convinced of the immense possibilities of glass, he took on some monumental projects. His first attempts date from 1902 and the construction of his private residence at 40 Cours la Reine (today Cours Albert 1er), parallel to the Seine. He designed the front door in glass molded with a design of spruce branches, and an interior door whose glass tiles were sculpted with motifs of athletes—a theme he would use again for the apartment of the couturier Jacques Doucet in the suburb of Neuilly.
In 1925 Lalique triumphed at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. Besides the main entrance door and his own pavilion with windows cast in a single piece, he designed the pavilion of the Manufacture de Sèvres and a luminous 49-foot-high fountain called the “Fountain of the Springs of France”. That same year, he created the stained-glass windows for the church of Saint Nicaise in Reims. In 1930, the nuns of a convent at Douvres-la-Délivrande in Calvados asked him to design an entire chapel.
Several large department stores called on him too, not only in Europe but also in the United States, including Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and Alexander & Oviatt in Los Angeles, where he created doors, elevator doors and windows for both the store and the Oviatt Building behind it. In 1929 he decorated the famed dining car of the Côte d’Azur Pullman Express train. (The car has been renovated as part of the Venice- Simplon-Orient Express private luxury train.) The most extravagant of his decors may have been the first-class dining room of the ocean liner Normandie—the walls were covered with glass tiles backed by sheets of gold leaf, punctuated by narrow, lighted glass columns. Two monumental glass chandeliers hung from the glass-paneled ceiling, and freestanding glass pillars lined the room, shaped like giant fountains of light—all earning the short-lived liner the nickname “Ship of Light”. (Launched in 1935, the Normandie sank in New York Harbor while being converted into a troop ship in 1942.)
René Lalique died in 1945. Since then the company has maintained his tradition of excellence, creating crystal objects, jewelry and perfumes. Current president Silvio Denz, an enthusiastic art lover, has been tracking down the works of René Lalique for 20 years, and, for the museum, he has succeeded in reuniting the collections of Marie-Claude Lalique, David Weinstein, and Glenn and Mary Lou Utt—three of the most beautiful Lalique collections known.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of France Today.