The Genteel
October 22, 2017
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Lalique Emerald Serpent Necklace (Source: trendluxury.com).

In 2002, a rare Art Nouveau Lalique pendant of a dragonfly woman went on sale at an auction. The purchase of this extraordinary object sparked the idea to fill a museum with other works by the master jeweller, artist, glass and crystal designer, René Lalique, and thus the Lalique Museum in Wingen-sur Moder, France, was born.

Lalique's roots were in France, and although there are several other museums that honour his work, including in Portugal and Japan, only recently was there one dedicated to him in his home country. This is surprising, not only because of the undeniable beauty of his creations, but also because of his fascinating rags-to-riches story.

Dragonfly Woman

(Source: uncg.edu).

Born to a poor family in 1860, Lalique's father, by all accounts a violent tempered chap, died young, and his mother was forced to send young René to live with her father. After apprenticing for a watchmaker at the age of 14, his talent for watercolour painting and jewellery design was noted by his mother, who saved money from her embroidery business to send him to study with William Morris in England. The influence of Morris' naturalistic style and Lalique's own love of nature (acquired from long walks in the countryside with his grandfather) led to his signature "three F's - flora, fauna and femmes" - a permanent feature of his designs. Even though he was also a product of the dominant aesthetic of his time (Art Nouveau), many of his pieces still look surprisingly modern, such as the "Flock of Swallows" brooches made in 1886, which bear a striking similarity to the motif used in the current Miu Miu collection.

Upon returning to France, his sketches for jewellery were exhibited at an industrial arts exhibition at the Louvre, where an established jeweller who planned to retire offered to sell his atelier to Lalique. Lacking the means to buy it, his mother encouraged young Renee to marry money - which he did.

This was a coldly ambitious move. Lalique was never truly in love with his first wife, and was soon involved with another woman who would become his second wife, but it transformed his life completely for the best. In his new workshop, Lalique felt free to experiment with materials unusual for the time: ivory, enamel and horn. His work attracted free spirited clientele such as the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who wore his accessories both on and off stage. It was she who introduced him to the oil tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian, who became his biggest client.

Even bigger clients were to come, however. In the 1890's, Lalique began to experiment with glass using a technique known as cire perdue, a thousand year old process which involves making detailed designs on wax casts, traditionally employed for bronze. His exotic, frosted flacons appealed to a certain perfumier named Francois Coty. Coty believed that his perfumes would sell more if he packaged them in elegant decanters, rather than the utilitarian flasks they were sold in at the time, so Lalique created a six sided bottle with three symmetrical pairs of dragonfly women smelling flowers for a scent called Cyclamen.

Pendant of enamel, opal, pearl and
diamond, 1901

(Source: metmuseum.org).

The bottles were a smash success, and Lalique was in even greater demand by perfume houses all across France. Annoyed by the fact that other jewellers had been making knock-offs of his designs, he made it known that he was now a glazier by holding a "farewell" show of his jewellery collection. Twenty five years after his drawings brought him praise at the Louvre, he once again dazzled the public at the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs, a seminal show after which the term "Art Deco" was coined. On display were glass flacons, statues, vases, lamps, and a stunning, 50-foot high fountain on the Esplanade des Invalides. In a career full of highs, he may have reached his zenith here.

Although his style and specialty changed over his lifetime, René Lalique's dedication to expressing the beauty of nature through his creations stayed steady. This is more than evident in the French museum dedicated to his work, which features vases coiled like hissing snakes; hood ornaments in the forms of horse heads and nudes; a "Poissons" statue with transparent fish leaping to the sky, and much more.

Several of his drawings can also be seen here, as well as Art Deco and Nouveau pins, necklaces and rings. The variety of works on display underscore the fact that Lalique was not only a jeweller, but a sculptor, artist, and in a way, an alchemist: after all, he somehow made sand and fire combine to create works of stunning beauty. 


Lalique Museum: http://www.musee-lalique.com/en

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