Heart of glass: why the world fell in love with Lalique
It is 100 years since René Lalique, already a successful jeweller, set up his glassworks in Alsace. To mark this milestone, we look back at the history of a multi-faceted, ever-evolving company celebrated for the brilliance of its jewellery, glass and crystal
In the mid 1880s, René Lalique was one of the most successful jewellers in the world. His delicately designed pieces combined gold and precious stones with innovative and exotic materials such as amber, horn, ivory, enamel and glass.
‘He was the undisputed master of Art Nouveau jewellery,’ says Violaine d’Astorg, head of Jewellery at Christie’s in Geneva. ‘His daring use of semi-precious materials, particularly moulded glass and enamel, was revolutionary, as was his choice of iconography influenced by Japonisme and the natural world.’
Today, standout pieces in the Art Nouveau style (c. 1890-1910) are treasured for their originality and excellence of design rather than the intrinsic value of their materials. Take Lalique’s enamel, diamond and pearl wasp pendant necklace (below left), which sold for CHF972,500, more than 10 times its low estimate, at Christie’s in Geneva in 2017.
‘It certainly is one of his most iconic and fascinating creations,’ says the specialist. ‘But at the same time, it’s subtle and very wearable. All of Lalique’s creations are soft against the skin, with the reverse as beautiful as the front.’
That sale, Beyond Boundaries: Magnificent Jewels from a European Collection, turned out to be a milestone event in the jewellery world, representing the largest collection of René Lalique jewellery ever to come to market.
‘René Lalique’s jewels rarely come to auction and are not that familiar to the general public,’ explains the specialist. ‘But things have changed since the 2017 sale, in part because Christie’s organised a special exhibition that was shown in Europe, America and Asia, as well as a series of lectures, workshops and conferences.’
René Lalique: from jeweller to glassmaker
René Lalique started his career as an independent designer at major ateliers such as Cartier and Boucheron before establishing his own workshop in Paris in 1888. His avant-garde designs soon attracted an intellectual and artistic elite, including the financier and oil magnate Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who wore specially designed René Lalique tiaras, necklaces and accessories on stage.
By the turn of the century, Lalique was an international sensation, with his stand at the Universal Exhibition in 1900 earning him the prestigious Légion d’Honneur. With fame, however, came forgers. Weary of being plagiarised, Lalique looked for a new career challenge in glassmaking.
‘After 1910, René Lalique concentrated his efforts on his new passion for glass,’ explains d’Astorg.
By 1912 he had abandoned jewellery altogether, instead producing perfume bottles, glasses, carafes and vases on a semi-industrial scale at a glassworks at Combs-la-Ville, south-east of Paris.
Lalique’s move to Alsace
With demand soon outstripping supply, however, Lalique sought to expand his business. Taking advantage of the financial incentives offered by the government to rejuvenate the Alsace and Moselle regions after the First World War, Lalique built a second production unit in Wingen-sur-Moder.
The Alsace factory opened in 1922 with around 50 glassmakers, cutters and engravers, mostly poached from neighbouring glassworks. By the start of the Second World War, their number had risen to around 300.
What set Lalique apart from his glassmaking contemporaries was his commitment to modernity. He abandoned multi-layer, multi-coloured glass, experimenting with limpidity and transparency, and embraced the Art Deco spirit, combining pure lines and geometric ornamentation with naturalistic motifs.
He also introduced mechanical processes and new techniques, including press-moulding, compressed air blowing, acid etching and sand-blasting, which enabled him to produce his designs in great numbers without compromising on quality.
The 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, where he unveiled a 15-metre-high fountain adorned with 128 glass caryatids designed especially for the exhibition entrance, secured his reputation as a master glassmaker.
Lalique glass soon sparkled in homes and restaurants from London to New York, but he had greater ambitions. In addition to tableware, vases and statuettes, Lalique designed mascots for cars in the form of animals, figures, insects and birds.
He also created large-scale architectural decorative elements for trains (such as the ‘Figurines and Grapes’ panel below), ocean liners and churches — notably St Matthew’s Church at Millbrook on Jersey in the Channel Islands, now known as Lalique’s ‘Glass Church’.
Antique Lalique pieces from the 1920s and 1930s remain highly prized by collectors. A ‘Palestre’ vase, for instance, first introduced in 1928, fetched $362,500 at Christie’s in December 2012, more than three times the high estimate. Its frieze of naked male athletes recalls the glass panels of a pair of doors created by Lalique in 1912 for the distinguished patron and collector Jacques Doucet.
Also worthy of note are Lalique’s cire perdue (lost wax) works, each of which, unlike commercially moulded glass, is a unique object. Between 1913 and 1932, Lalique made nearly 650 glass vases, bowls and decorative pieces using this ancient casting technique, among them the ‘Lutteurs’ vase from 1914 (above), which sold at Christie’s in New York in 2006 for $307,200.
Lalique: the next generation
By 1935 Lalique had moved all his glass production to the factory at Wingen-sur-Moder, only for it to be seized by the government during the Second World War. After René’s death in 1945, his son Marc took the helm and modernised the factory, ushering in a new era of crystal.
Unlike glass, crystal contains lead, which is what gives it its sparkle and sonority. The blend of transparent and satin finishes, a stylistic effect that René had first explored in glass, soon became a distinguishing feature of Lalique crystal — and remains so to this day.
While Marc focused on tableware and his perfume collaboration with Nina Ricci, he also began to experiment with scale, producing monumental pieces including the Lalique chandelier pictured below, which comprises 337 pieces of crystal and weighs approximately 1.7 tonnes. Originally unveiled in 1951 at the Art of Glass exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, it now resides in the Musée Lalique in Wingen-sur-Moder.
Following in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, Marie-Claude Lalique diversified production, introducing lines of scarves, leather goods, watches and china. She also returned to jewellery and developed the manufacture of perfume bottles, creating the ‘Lalique de Lalique’ fragrance in 1992.
Lalique today: an expanding universe
In 2008 Lalique was acquired by Art et Fragrance, now the Lalique Group, which is headed by the Swiss entrepreneur Silvio Denz.
Denz introduced a new phase of modernisation: the Lalique factory now has a tank furnace, a mould-making workshop, a dedicated lost-wax workshop, a new polyacid polishing workshop and a research and development office.
In the factory some 200 skilled workers bring Lalique’s designs to life, with each artisan focusing on a particular stage of the production process, whether it be hot or cold pressing, sanding, etching, frosting or polishing. (It can take around 10 years to become a master glassmaker, so Lalique now offers in-house apprenticeships to safeguard the company’s artisanal skills.)
During the production process, which can require up to 40 steps, each piece is checked at least 10 times and will be discarded if defects are detected. For instance, in the lost-wax workshop, which deals in the time-consuming and complex method of sculpting by hand, about 50 per cent of pieces are rejected. Today, this technique is most widely employed for Lalique’s one-off commissions and limited editions made in collaboration with designers and artists such as Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor.
The factory produces 350,000 to 400,000 pieces each year, including around 1,800 of the best-selling Bacchantes vases, originally designed by René Lalique in 1927. Decorated with female nudes in bas-relief, the vase takes about 30 hours and 25 people to produce and has been reimagined in cerulean blue for this year’s centenary.
‘It has a timeless aesthetic inspired by nature — flora, fauna and the female form,’ explains Frederick Fischer, UK managing director of Lalique. ‘Our creative director, Marc Larminaux, reinterprets René Lalique’s designs while staying close to the original.’
Safeguarding its heritage is key to maintaining the brand’s lustre, but so too is diversification. The ‘Lalique universe’ now includes a full-service interior-design studio, perfume, jewellery and fine-dining restaurants in Alsace, Sauternes and Perthshire.
The company also has a clutch of hotels, including the five-star Villa René Lalique on the outskirts of Wingen-sur-Moder, which was built as a home by René Lalique in 1920. It was remodelled and reopened under Denz in 2015 as a luxury hotel, complete with Lalique interiors and a destination restaurant — now with two Michelin stars.
The Musée Lalique
Then there’s the Musée Lalique, also in Wingen-sur-Moder, which is home to more than 650 of the company’s creations, ranging from Art Nouveau jewellery to contemporary crystal pieces.
Among its notable treasures is a rare ‘Femme Ailée’ (Winged Woman) sculpture designed by René Lalique for the balustrade of his stand at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900.
One of only six bronze Winged Women known to exist, it was acquired in 2013 by Lalique dealer Shai Bandmann in collaboration with the renowned collectors Ronald Ooi and Erica Lai, and has been on loan to the museum ever since. Another piece from their collection in the museum is a magnificent Art Nouveau moth bodice ornament from around 1906-7 (above).
‘From time to time we make the trip to Alsace, and because we are the biggest lenders to the museum, they take us down to the vaults to visit items not on display,’ Ooi told Christie’s in 2019. ‘It’s nice,’ adds his wife Erica Lai, ‘because these pieces are like our little babies, and it means nothing to own them if you can’t ever touch them or feel them.’
In 2018 two other winged figures by René Lalique (one shown above) were offered at Christie’s, each selling for $492,500.
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For Fischer, Lalique’s expanding universe enables the brand to reach a new and diverse client base.
‘Lalique has a unique artistic heritage, aesthetic and bank of skilled artisans and craftsmen,’ he says. ‘Combined, they allow us to stay contemporary and fresh and break boundaries in exciting new ways though colour, finish and design.’
Would René Lalique approve? ‘Renewal and innovation have always been at the heart of Lalique,’ he notes. ‘So yes, I think he would.’
A Hundred Years of Lalique in Alsace runs until 6 November 2022 at the Musée Lalique in Wingen-sur-Moder