The French artist René Lalique helped to define the aesthetic of the Art Nouveau movement with his masterful glass pieces and jewelry. Lalique's trademark style had fluid lines that resembled the movement of water, and the colors he chose, such as plum, turquoise, yellow, and black, made him a world-renowned artist and the indisputable master of Art Nouveau jewelry design. René Lalique was born on April 6th 1860, in Ay in the French province of Champagne. From an early age his mother helped foster his artistic sensibilities. In 1862 the family moved to the outskirts of Paris, and Lalique received his early education at the Lycée Turgot. It was here that he won his first award, for drawing, at the age of 12.
In 1876, due to the death of his father, he was apprenticed to the renowned Parisian jeweler and goldsmith Louis Aucoc, and also enrolled at the École des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Two years later he moved to England and studied at the School of Art, in Sydenham. At Sydenham, his skills for graphic design were improved, and his naturalistic approach to art was further developed. Returning to Paris in 1880, Lalique completed his education at the École Bernard Palissy, studying sculpture, and at the same time designing wallpaper and fabrics for a relative.
In 1881, René Lalique began his career as a freelance jewelry designer for acclaimed houses Cartier and Boucheron. In 1885 he took over the workshop of Jules d'Estape in the Rue du 4 Septembre, Paris. He rejected the current trend for diamonds in grand settings and instead used such gemstones as bloodstones, tourmalines, cornelians and chrysoberyls, together with plique-a-jour enameling and inexpensive metals for his creations. He was the first to pair semi-precious stones with ivory, pearl, coral, enamel, and even plastic or glass. Lalique produced spectacular sculptural pieces, seamlessly weaving fantasy and nature together.
Lalique's success grew quickly and by 1887, he needed more space. He rented another atelier and ran both workshops until 1890, when he combined operations in one larger location, with room for thirty workers. Working with two father-and-son sculptors, Lalique designed the decorations for the atelier's walls and ceilings. During his tenure in this workshop, Lalique truly came into his own as a designer. He made pieces for such luminaries as actress Sarah Bernhardt. Tony L. Mortimer noted in Lalique that Bernhardt's patronage "proved a valuable commercial asset which immediately gained him an international reputation." Lalique also began his first forays into glass work, either incorporating bits of glass into his jewelry designs or making such small pieces of glassware as perfume vials.
The 1890s continued to hold triumphs for Lalique. By 1894, Lalique's pieces were sold in Siegfried Bing's La Maison de l'Art Nouveau, the shop which would lend its name to the Art Nouveau movement. In 1897, he exhibited some ivory-and-horn combs at Paris's Salon and was dubbed the "inventor of modern jewelry" by Emile Gallé. That same year, Lalique participated in the International Exposition at Brussels, Belgium, where he was awarded the Grand Prize. To cap off the year, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
By 1900, Lalique found that he had reached the pinnacle of his success in the jewelry field. With a desire to expand his artistic vision, he began using glass to create an array of decorative pieces. This career change would prove to be highly successful. By the age of 50, he became a master glassmaker and gained worldwide fame. Almost a hundred years later, he is still a well-recognized figure. Aside from his signature pieces, such as tableware, inkwells, vases, clocks, and chandeliers, he also made perfume bottles for some of the most prestigious perfumeries and car hood ornaments for the most stylish cars of his day – Bentley, Hispano, Suiza, and Bugatti. The hood ornaments were illuminated from within and came in the shapes of fish, birds, horse heads, frogs, dragonflies, and shooting stars.
Continuing to exhibit in major art shows both in France and throughout Europe, Lalique opened a store in 1905 on Paris's famed Place Vendôme, offering both jewelry and glass. The boutique's location near perfumer François Coty's shop led to a providential partnership around 1908, with Lalique initially designing labels and later glass bottles for Coty's perfumes. This was the first time perfumes were packaged in distinctive, rather than traditionally classical, bottles; Lalique's designs for Coty were so evocative of the fragrance that he went on to design bottles for many major perfumers of the era. Lalique did not have the production capabilities necessary for the large number 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 of Paris, allowing him to use his preferred demicristal type of glass, better showing Lalique's distinctive style.
Feeling that he had fully expressed himself in jewelry and tiring of the pastiche creations of his imitators, Lalique turned definitively away from jewelry and to glassware in 1911. In fact, his collection at the first show of the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in that year was 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. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Lalique's production output changed from purely decorative items to include practical ones: laboratory glass for hospitals and pharmacies. After the war, however, Lalique found such a high demand for his products that in 1921 he built a large glassworks, Verrerie d'Alsace René Lalique et Cie, at Wingen sur Moder, in eastern of France. Lalique’s creations ranged from decorative panels for interior architecture to covers for car radiators, all of which are highly collectible to this day.
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 producing multiples of the same design in a quasi-industrial manner. As the superb catalogue raisonné by Felix Marcilhac shows, some models were kept in production for decades, and were created in different colors, with different finishes including “opalescent glass, which gives Lalique’s pieces an etherealy, otherworldly quality.”
By the 1930's the company had grown so large that 600 workers were employed and outlets were offering Lalique glassware in North and South America, Europe and Great Britain. Although Lalique's products remained immensely popular, the company suspended operations in 1939 when its factory in Wingen sur Moder was occupied by an invading German force. 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 1, 1945, at the age of 85, after a productive and successful life in creative jewelry and glass design. However, the death of Lalique did not mean the end of his company. In late 1945, Lalique's son Marc re-opened the Wingen sur Moder factory, designing new pieces and using a new, brighter form of glass. Marc Lalique's daughter, Marie-Claude Lalique, came to work with her father in 1956 and became the head of the glassworks in 1977 upon her father's death. 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, France; and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England.