René Lalique (1860 – 1945) When René-Jules Lalique died in May 1945, a month after his 85th birthday, he was lauded as the undisputed genius of Art Nouveau jewelry and deemed by many as the greatest artist-jeweler ever known and as a man of exceptional talent, imagination, versatility; a “true innovator.” During a career that encompassed many disciplines, Lalique became a national hero and remains compared to the greatest artists of all time.
Born in 1860 in pre-industrial France, Lalique moved to Paris with his family when he was two years old. His interest in nature began at a young age with long walks through the countryside of Champagne, the area in which he was born. His love of drawing and sketching, apparent from childhood, led him to the Sydenham School of Art in London.
After the death of his father, Lalique began an apprenticeship with Louis Aucoc, one of the best jewelers in Paris and took drawing classes at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs de Paris. His work for Aucoc that began when he was sixteen, provided an opportunity for young René to learn jewelry production and design from inception to production.
In 1878 Lalique attended college in Sydenham England and it was during this time that he developed a unique naturalist style that would distinguish him as the most celebrated jewelers of the “Art Nouveau” era. Lalique returned to France in 1880 and began work designing jewelry for a relative, M. Vuilleret.
He also spent time studying with the sculptor, Justin Lequien at the Ecole Bernard Palissy. By 1881, Lalique was working as a freelance designer for many French jewelry firms including Cartier and Boucheron as well as a growing list of private clients.
In 1886, he was offered the opportunity to buy jeweler Jules Destape’s business. Lalique’s decision to accept proved to be one of the most defining moments of his career. Now in charge of his own workshop, his creativity was no longer limited by the whims and desires of his clients and his imagination flowed.
The year 1886 was also when Lalique married his first wife, Marie-Louis Lambert. They would have a daughter Georgette who was born in 1888 and died in 1910. The couple divorced in 1898.
Lalique’s early designs were basic, traditional, diamond set jewels like the types in demand by customers and leading Parisian manufacturers and retailers of the time. Lalique made diamond set roses, brooches designed as lively, twittering birds and branches, or simple ears of corn.
In 1884, Lalique displayed his own creations for the first time at the Louvre’s exhibition of the Crown Jewels. At the exhibition Lalique attracted the attention of Alphonse Fouquet, the leading Paris jeweler whose firm would later create spectacular Art Nouveau jewelry.
After Lalique opened his own shop, he experienced quick success and had to expand. He opened another workshop in Rue Quatre Septembre. During 1890, Lalique moved his workshop to 20 Rue Therese where he and his wife lived above the shop. It was at this location that Lalique began to experiment with glass.
From the outset, Lalique began manufacturing designs that broke with traditional jewelry conventions using fragile and exotic materials such as translucent enamel, semi-precious stones, and ivory. Nature was his main source of inspiration and it was seen in his creations of dragonflies, snakes and peacocks.
Although Lalique’s primary jewelry design motif was the natural world, it was not just the world of the French countryside but also of Japanese natural world art motifs. In his jewelry he incorporated many materials not widely used at the time for high end pieces including glass, horn, pearls, semi-precious stones, enamel, and ivory. He only used valuable gemstones of the period for what they brought to the piece artistically and not for their value as gems. Therefore his Lalique jewelry creations were not just receptacles for high value stones, they were artwork in their own right. These designs created worldwide interest and a huge demand.
While still married to his first wife, Lalique began a relationship with Augustine-Alice Ledru and, in 1892, their first child, Suzanne, was born. Augustine-Alice’s second child, Marc was born in 1900. Rene and Augustine-Alice were married in 1902 but she would pass away only 7 years later at the age of 39.
By the mid 1890’s. Rene Lalique had become a notable figure in the world of Parisian jewelry and fashion. He was designing jewelry for his famous patron, Sarah Bernhardt and exhibited work she inspired at the 1895 Salon.
Lalique’s first depiction of a female nude came in about 1894 and, of course, caused a good deal of controversy. Undeterred, he continued to use Bernhardt’s form and femininity as his muse. Her depictions added much to his work particularly in the long swathes of luxuriantly flowing hair that became one of his, and Art Nouveau’s, most distinctive decorative motifs.
In 1895, an introduction to the collector Calouste Gulbenkian led to the most significant commission of Lalique’s jewelry career. Gulbenkian requested 145 pieces over which Lalique would have complete artistic freedom. It took over 15 years to complete this collection and it remains an extraordinary testament to his creative imagination.
In the 1890s, Lalique’s jewelry also began to show a strong sculptural element that combined classicism with the Art Nouveau movement. It was during this time that Lalique started adapting the technique of tour a réduire, a process familiar to engravers and medalists, and used for making coins. Lalique was the first to apply the technique to jewelry, working initially on ivory reliefs. Soon, other Paris jewelers were copying his methods.
Also, during the 1890s Lalique began showing distinctive signs of a new sculptural fluidity in his gold work. He was able to turn gold into a substance that seemed liquid.
Lalique was fascinated by plant and animal life. As with all Art Nouveau designers, Lalique took interest in plant structures: stems, leaves, and in the bud. He also focused on the decay and rebirth of the natural world, choosing wilting leaves and petals, world-weary anemones or poppies, overblown roses, or field flowers for his designs.
Rene Lalique embraced France’s progressive art glass movement and became more involved in glassmaking, intent in creating a new form of jewel. From the late 1890s, Lalique started incorporating glass motifs into his jewelry mixing valueless materials with precious metals and stones. He developed his own special glass: demi-crystal that was sparkling yet malleable. Shapes were cast in molds and then finished by hand and wheel-carved to obtain a high degree of definition. They were often painted with enamels or stained to produce the effect of a patina.
Lalique’s use of enamels became more audacious and a fundamental part of almost every jewel he produced. His use of color and texture was unequalled and his technique was masterful especially the open-backed translucent or plique-a-jour enamel, the most spectacular and complicated of enameling effects. This application of plique-a-jour is seen to perfection on his most spectral and memorable jewel, the monumental dragonfly corsage ornament now in the Gulbenkian Museum, in Lisbon.
Lalique jewelry was also found at popular outlets like the store of Siegfried Bing, the Maison de l’art Nouveau. In 1897 Lalique received first prize at the Salon in Paris, where he exhibited ivory and horn hair combs. This same year he was also awarded the Croix de la Legion d’Honneur for the jewelry he exhibited at the World’s Fair in Brussels.
In 1900, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Rene Lalique jewelry was a sensation with the roughly 50 million who visited it. He not only exhibited jewelry, but also objects d’art that were made using bronze, ivory, and glass. By the end of 1900, Rene Lalique was recognized as the premiere jeweler of his day, and as a decorative artist of the highest order by both the public and his contemporaries.
After 1900, and his overwhelming success at the exposition, Lalique was flooded with orders from all over the world. He took part in major international exhibitions in Europe and in the United States: Turin 1902, Berlin 1903, and in St. Louis 1904. Lalique was also invited to exhibit his jewelry in London at the Grafton Galleries in 1903 and then at Agnews in 1905.
Collaboration with the perfumer Coty soon followed and Lalique designed both labels and bottles for that company. This would eventually lead him to set up his own glassworks to ensure accurate production of his designs.
By 1900, Lalique realized that his success in the jewelry trade had peaked. In his desire to expand his artistic vision, he began to use glass to create a line of decorative pieces. Once again, his ability to change careers proved highly successful. At the age of fifty, he was now a master glassmaker and that added to his worldwide fame.
Aside from his signature pieces, such as tableware, inkwells, vases, clocks, and chandeliers, his forays into creating perfume bottles for some of the most prestigious perfumeries and hood ornaments for the stylish cars of his day – Bentley, Hispano, Suiza, and Bugatti further established his artistic versatility.
The hood ornaments were illuminated from within and were in the shapes of fish, birds, horse heads, frogs, dragonflies, and shooting stars. Throughout this time, Lalique continued to exhibit in major art shows both in France and throughout Europe.
In 1905, Lalique opened a store Paris’ famed Place Vendôme offering both jewelry and glass. The boutique’s location near perfumer François Coty’s shop led to their partnership in 1908 with Lalique initially designing labels and subsequently glass bottles for Coty’s perfumes. This was the first time perfumes were packaged in distinctive, rather than traditional, classic bottles. Lalique’s designs for Coty were so evocative of the fragrance that he soon began to design bottles for many major perfumers of the era.
Lalique did not have the facilities necessary for the amount of bottles Coty required for his mass market perfumes, so the earliest bottles were designed by Lalique but produced by Legras and Company. In 1909, Lalique opened his own glassworks just outside Paris. At this location, he could use his preferred demicristal type of glass that gave Lalique creations their distinctive style. Ultimately, Lalique turned away from jewelry to glassware with his 1911 exhibit at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts devoted exclusively to works in glass.
The following year, he designed architectural features including doors, windows, and interior fittings for an upscale French residence and for the Coty Building on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. He dedicated the remainder of his career to designing glass on both small and large scales, from vases and dishes to stained glass windows, fountains and decorative panels.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Lalique’s production output changed from purely decorative items and included practical ones like laboratory glass for hospitals and pharmacies. During World War I, the glass factory also manufactured practical items that became necessary during the war including plain glass bottles and containers for hospitals and medicines.
After the war, there was a high demand for his products so, in 1921, he built a larger glassworks, Verrerie d’Alsace René Lalique et Cie, at Wingen sur Moder, in the east of France. Lalique’s creations ranged from decorative panels for interior architecture to covers for car radiators all of which remain highly collectible today.
Though he made quite a number of unique pieces using the cire-perdue (lost wax) method of glass casting, Lalique truly achieved his greatest success in glass by producing multiples of the same design in an almost industrial manner. Some models were kept in production for decades, and were created in different colors, with different finishes (many in opalescent glass, which gives Lalique’s pieces an ethereal, otherworld quality).
Lalique is best known for his glass creations especially in the Art Deco style. He was responsible for the walls of lighted glass and elegant colored glass columns that filled the dining room and “grand salon” of the SS Normandie and the interior fittings, cross, screens, reredos and font of St. Matthew’s Church at Millbrook in Jersey, England fondly called, “Lalique’s Glass Church.” Perhaps the most widely known and often noticed works of Lalique are his wonderful art glass vases.
In the years between the mid-twenties until the onset of World War II, Lalique created an incredible array of vase designs that transitioned from art nouveau and natural world mold blown vases to increasingly press molded art deco and geometric designs. In all, over 300 vases are documented, all but a dozen or two being production models that were intended for sale to a growing international consumer base.
By the 1930’s the company had grown so large that 600 workers were employed and outlets were offering Lalique glassware in both North and South America, Europe, and Great Britain. Although Lalique’s products remained immensely popular, the company suspended operation in 1939 when its factory in Wingen sur Moder was occupied by invading German forces.
The area remained under German control and the glassworks remained closed until the end of the war in 1945. Unfortunately, René Lalique did not live to see his factory re-open after the war; he died on May 9, 1945, at the age of 85.
However, Lalique’s death did not the end of his company. In late 1945, Lalique’s son Marc re-opened the Wingen sur Moder factory and began designing new pieces branded Cristal Lalique using a brighter form of glass. Marc Lalique’s daughter, Marie-Claude Lalique, came to work with her father in 1956 and became head of the glassworks in 1977 upon his death. His granddaughter, Marie Claude-Lalique (1936 – 2003) was also a glass maker who died at seventy years of age in Fort Myers, Florida.
In 2008 Cristal Lalique was acquired jointly by the Swiss company Art & Fragrance and the Paris based Holding Company Financière Saint-Germain (FSG) that began to integrate the marketing and business management of Cristal Lalique with the products controlled by FSG including Haviland Porcelain and Cristallerie Daum. This resulted in opening Lalique – Haviland stores that carried both products. However, at the end of 2010, the principals announced they were dissolving their partnership with 100% ownership of Cristal Lalique reverting to Art & Fragrance.
The Lalique Crystal introduced by Marc Lalique is sold in stores all over the world, and the product line includes several crystal reproductions of original Rene Lalique glass designs, such as the Bacchantes Vase. The reproduction of original Rene Lalique designs appears to have increased markedly in the period from 2009 – 2010.
Lalique Crystal is sold in company owned boutiques in London, New York and elsewhere. Today, the Lalique Company continues to produce highly respected decorative glass and jewelry, with outlets throughout the world.
Lalique’s original, turn-of-the-century pieces can be found in such internationally-known museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Corning Museum in New York State, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Lalique’s signature was affixed to nearly every piece he created or supervised. Most pieces were signed RLalique in one form or another, though some were simply signed Lalique. Others have more extensive markings that can include the country of origin (France) and the Rene Lalique et Cie model number of the item. It would normally be a mistake to authenticate any RLalique piece from the signature alone. Signatures can be faked; some quite well and easily.
Perfume bottle collectors value RLalique bottles most highly. RLalique glass architectural commissions – windows, glass panels and the like – engender fierce competition when making their rare appearances at auction. RLalique designs and Lalique jewelry bring huge prices at auction. Lalique’s production vases are collected by people all over the world, and Rene Lalique’s one of a kind Cire Perdue creations are found in the hands of several private collections.
In the worldwide Rene Lalique Museum Collections are found the extensive variety of his artistic talents and vision. The hood ornaments are the most sought after and everything from Lalique ashtrays, tableware, plates, bowls, light fixtures, inkwells, clocks, and the entire array of his works are collected around the world.
The highest selling Rene Lalique Perfume Bottle at auction prior to 2012 is the rare 1936 Perfume presentation, Tresor de la Mer made in a limited edition of 100 for Saks Fifth Avenue. It consisted of a glass pearl form bottle inside an opalescent glass oyster shell.
Lalique’s vases are another highly popular auction item. In 2009, the 1909 vase Deux Cigales sold at auction for over $300,000 and highly coveted production vases routinely achieve prices in the $10,000 to $50,000 range such as the Amber Serpent Vase which sold for $48,000.
At the same time, thousands of Lalique vases in lesser demand appear at auctions worldwide every year, achieving prices from low hundreds of dollars to several thousands of dollars. To this day, there is an RLalique vase for almost every taste, every budget, and in nearly every color.
Fake Lalique works are not nearly the problem for Rene Lalique Collectors as are fakes are in many other fields, but they still do pose problems as, with increasing value, more fake items appear on the market. Broadly speaking, fake Lalique can be grouped into four categories. First and most typical, is where a fake Lalique signature is put on an item that any collector would know is not the work of Rene Lalique. Second are pieces with fraudulent Lalique signatures where the piece is somewhat in the “style of Lalique.” In this category, even the occasional or novice collectors can be fooled.
Third is where post-war crystal reproductions of original René Lalique designs by the modern Cristal Lalique Company are sold with forged RLalique signatures added. This category can fool even some experienced collectors.
The last category and by far the smallest of the four, is where copies of Rene Lalique’s works, either very close or nearly identical to the authentic originals, have appeared. Fortunately, this seems to be confined to only a handful of pieces.
The Lalique style emanates from an artistic gesture, outlining a drawing in total harmony with crystal. This is a style easily recognized through the manual modeling of the shapes and patterns, as if sculptured and the richness of the figurative details. Different types of finishing create the characteristic contrast of clear and matt crystal. It’s an identity built by softness, femininity, and nature with strong Art nouveau and Art Deco inspirations.
By the time of his death in 1945 at the dawn of the atomic age, Lalique had completed two careers spanning two different centuries. In 1900 at the age of 40, he was the most celebrated jeweler in the world and an art nouveau artist and designer of magnificent proportions. In 1925, at the height of his career during the art deco era, he was the most celebrated glassmaker in the world.
In between Lalique left his contemporaries behind as he turned from creating unique jewelry and objects d’art to the mass production of innovative and usable art glass. He brought glass into the home of everyday people where it had never been before and he worked out industrial techniques to mass produce his useful art glass objects on a scale and cost that resulted in a worldwide appetite for his products.
Lalique is remembered for his jewelry and his glass. But his greatest accomplishments were born in his recognition of the changing world in which he lived. His life spanned the entire period from the Civil War to World War II and as the world changed, so did Lalique.
During his lifetime, Lalique was recognized with a number of awards including the Grand Prix and the rosette of The Légion d’Honneur; the highest decoration a person can receive in France.
His amazing turn of careers and fields puts Lalique at the forefront of mass production. He was a jeweler, a glassmaker, and an artist. But his great accomplishment was to combine those talents with foresight and innovation not just to serve markets, but to create them. In the process, Lalique became a world class industrialist with abilities equal to his other rich talents and achievements.
Today, he is remembered as an artist, designer, jeweler, glassmaker, industrialist, innovator, and visionary.