RENE LALIQUE – an article by Eric Knowles

Rene Jules Lalique won his first design award in 1872 at the tender age of twelve at the Lycee Turgot in Paris, however when his father died in 1876 he was forced to earn his living and became apprenticed to the leading Paris jeweller – Louis Aucoc.

Two years later the young Rene found himself in Sydenham South London where he enrolled at the School of Art. British Art Schools at that time were recognised by many on the Continent as being more progressive and able to benefit from the then influential Arts and Crafts Movement that had become firmly rooted in British soil.

By 1880 Lalique was back in Paris where he set himself up as a freelance designer producing work for such illustrious jewellers as Cartier, Boucheron and Vever.

The year 1885 saw him purchase, from his former client Jules Destape, the Gaillon workshops which allowed him to work independently. Such was his success that two years on he moved to larger premises and then again in 1890, upon his first marriage, when he set up at No 20 Rue Therese where he lived above the shop with his new bride.

It wasn’t until 1895 however that he publicly exhibited his jewels – prior to this he had only submitted his designs.

From this period his jewellery can be seen to make use of strong sculptural elements that contrasted sharply with the flow of mainstream fashion that for generations had seen the purpose of jewellery as a means of displaying wealth. Throughout the 19th Century, as in previous centuries, demand had always been for designs where the emphasis was invariably for elaborate mounts executed to hold as many precious stones as the customer’s wallet might allow.

Lalique however rejected such criteria and pursued his own distinctive approach by adopting a philosophy that recognised the merit of a jewel to be inextricably inherent in the design and the craftsmanship involved in its manufacture. 

His choice of materials was dictated by suitability for purpose and effect, consequently his compositions often feature the precious, semi and non-precious.

In 1894 Lalique began to make use of the technique known as tour a reduire that allowed for the small scale reduction of a design, although previously used by coin designers and medallists the machine used was able to scale down a design without the loss of detail. Lalique was to use the technique initially on the carving of ivory panels and initiated a trend amongst other Parisian jewellers who were quick to recognise the merits of the machine.

During the following twelve years Lalique’s output became testament to both a highly individual and remarkably fertile imagination that sought and found inspiration in the splendour of nature itself. If there was any outside guiding influence it was almost certainly that of Japan where the craftsmen would recognise and isolate the slightest naturalistic detail and then apply it to a work of art with an economy of definition that was used to great effect – case of less often being more.

This approach became manifest in those compositions that might incorporate dragonflies perched or hovering above flowering plants, the random fall of sycamore seeds or the treatment of a spray of cow parsley.

 He also produced a series of jewels that celebrated the four seasons each of which manages to encapsulate the very essence and atmosphere of the relative time of year. Even the times of day were captured in compositions that make use of opals carved to emulate sunshine reflecting off rippling waves whereas a series of frosted glass owls perched amongst pine branches of gold and dark blue enamel provides the perfect nocturnal scenario.

His subject matter was by no means limited to the natural world but often permeated the mists of both symbolism and the supernatural allowing his imagination to create designs and creatures with the ability to shock. Such tactics are visible in his famous breast jewel fashioned as a large dragonfly with plique-a-jour translucent enamel wings devouring, or perhaps giving metamorphic birth to, a maiden carved in blue-green chrysoprase. His use of the human, especially female, form is often a ploy to introduce an overt sensuality that skirts the erotic and can be witnessed in the jewels that feature “the kiss” rendered in ivory, rock crystal or moulded glass.

Symbolism often plays a role in his work and is inherent in his oxidised silver pendant, complete with baroque blister pearl, featuring a tousled haired Art Nouveau maiden inset with glass facial features. Her expression is dream-like and Lalique’s choice of poppy flowers in her hair may well be emblematic of sleep but he leaves you with the nagging doubt that the choice of flower may have more of an association with opium and that this is the face of an addict rather than that of someone in a naturally induced state of inner calm. 

Lalique’s fascination with the possibilities of moulded glass was to eventually see him turn his back on jewellery design in preference for his second and equally illustrious career as France’s master glassmaker but more of that in a later article.

Alongside glass he also explored the possibilities of cow horn and its malleable properties when heated together with the three dimensional effects achieved by staining and which as a master of perspective he was able to make great play.

The Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1900 established his reputation as the most important jewellery designer of his age when the crowds flocked to see his magnificent display within a highly individual stand that featured a grille of bronze butterfly girls beneath a fabric starlit sky inhabited by large bats. It was unquestionably a virtual shrine to not only Lalique but also to the triumph of the all-prevailing style recognised today as Art Nouveau and of which he was recognised as one it’s most important leading exponents. .

His clientele now included royalty, aristocracy and heads of state as well as several national museums but his two most recognised devotees were the actress Sarah Bernhardt and the financier Calouste Gulbenkian, the latter forming what is arguably today the most important collection on public display in Lisbon, Portugal.

After the success of the Paris Exposition Lalique enjoyed full order books and in 1904

moved premises yet again this time to 40 Cours la Reine (now Cours Albert Ie) a five story building designed to his specification and benefiting from a remarkable frontage that included a massive door composed of glass panels moulded with an overall pine cone design

If emulation really is the sincerest form of flattery then Rene Lalique was singularly unimpressed with the poor imitations of his masterworks that began to infiltrate the jewellery marketplace. This is said to be one of the reasons for his interest in jewellery design beginning to wane and for his attention to be redirected to the possibilities of glass. A chance meeting in 1907 with the perfume guru Francois Coty proved the catalyst that was to propel Rene Lalique into the design of industrially produced glass perfume bottles and so much more – as the later years were to bear witness.

  So having been recognised as France’s master jeweller working in the Art Nouveau style he began a career that was to result in the accolade of being recognised as the master glassmaker of the Art Deco age.