In the late 1800’s, Rene Lalique burst onto the jewelry-making scene at the perfect time; his vision, his imagination, and his creative flair were a perfect complement to the spirit of the Art Nouveau movement as it began to find expression in jewelry design. No longer would jewelry merely serve as a display of wealth; new designs would open the doors to creativity and imagination, and the wearers would be admired for taste and unconventionality rather than affluence. The new style was greeted enthusiastically by the public, and by the turn of the century, Lalique had established himself as a dominant force in the Art Nouveau style of jewelry design.
For Lalique, the value of the materials of his jewelry was secondary to the artistic quality of each piece. He only used precious materials such as gold, silver, and diamonds if they made an aesthetic contribution to the design of a piece. Rather than adding to the pecuniary worth of an object, precious gems were assessed to determine how they would affect its overall sculptural quality, originality, and beauty.
With the advent of a new concept in jewelry design came new forms, materials, and techniques. Traditional materials were combined with the new to produce innovative visual effects. And Rene Lalique was recognized as one of the most innovative of all the designers, during his own time and into the present.
The jewelry of Rene Lalique can be simple or intricate, strong or delicate, sensual or disturbing. Besides the exceptional beauty, quality, and inventiveness of the designs, there are several other elements that help to identify his work. Many of his pieces begin with a symmetrical frame surrounding a design. The frame may consist of a geometric shape, or mirror images of an animal such as a swan or a peacock. Often he would embellish the primary design with a dangling jewel or gemstone and/or a motif.
Chains were also integral components of the design, rather than afterthoughts. Lalique invested as much thought into the chain for a pendant as he did the rest of the design. Depending on the design they are supporting, chains can be composed of different types of links including bars, batons, squares, ovals, or circles. The links can be enameled, or they can be composed strictly of metal.
One of Lalique’s strengths was the inspired composition of his designs. He based his choice of materials on how they could complement each other and what they could contribute to a design. Going beyond the traditional precious metals and jewels, he included items whose intrinsic values were not on the same scale, but which offered a unique potential for beauty and artistic realization. Semi-precious gemstones such as amethysts, citrine, peridot, moonstone, and opal are prevalent in his work. He particularly favored the latter two gemstones, as well as pearls, for their luminescent qualities. Lalique also appreciated the artistic possibilities inherent in natural items such as mother of pearl, tortoiseshell, and ivory; he actually introduced natural horn as an artist’s material and made extensive use of it in hair combs and other pieces.
The name Lalique is also associated with art glass, so naturally, glass played a dominant role in many of Lalique’s jewelry designs. Depending on the design, it could include clear lead-based glass, or glass that was colored, frosted, etched, carved, or molded. He favored the “lost wax” technique for many of his glass embellishments. In this process, a desired form is sculpted from wax and used to form a mold. When the wax is melted and poured away, molten glass is poured into the mold to produce a rose, a dragonfly, a woman’s face, or any number of other designs. This method allowed for only one design to be created from each mold, so each product was individual and unique. It was not until 1905 that Lalique began to use mass production techniques, and by then, his focus on glass art related more to pieces designed for home décor than to jewelry.
The Art Nouveau movement was largely a reaction to the fussy, inhibited style of the Classic period. Nouveau artists worked to emphasize creativity, new themes, techniques and materials. By 1890, Lalique was widely recognized as one of France’s foremost Art Nouveau jewelry designers. His jewelry pieces were renowned not just for beauty and creativity, but also for quality. While he did not craft many of his pieces himself, he was a strict overseer of the craftsmen who implemented his designs, and he personally guided them in the use of his various decorative techniques.
Lalique’s designs embodied the Naturalistic spirit of the Art Nouveau movement. Through Lalique’s eyes, all the flora and fauna in nature had potential for beauty. The humble, rather unpleasant-looking bat could be as elegant as a butterfly or a dragonfly when it was incorporated into a ring of enamel and moonstone. Swans, peacocks, orchids, and lilies were equally striking on such items as hat pins, chokers, and brooches. A Lalique pendant could easily have been a painting or a sculpture that had been miniaturized and suspended from a chain.
Many of Lalique’s designs included themes straight out of mythology. Enchanted women; hybrid creatures that were part human, part animal; dragons; mermaids and nymphs are found in many of his pieces. The female figure was used extensively in Art Nouveau, and Lalique incorporated female faces and demurely draped nudes in many of his graceful, sinuous designs. Lalique’s use of creeping vines and branches outlined the curves and twists appropriate for the era, including the signature design of the Art Nouveau movement, the S-curve.
Much of the art of the period included a Japanese influence. The dragonfly and other images that were so important in Japanese art are often seen in Lalique designs. The intricate wings of the dragonfly lend themselves especially well to the plique-a-jour enameling technique, in which the metal backing is removed from fired translucent enamel to produce an effect similar to stained glass. He was also adept at using other enameling styles— cloisonné, champlevé, and basse-taille—to produce uniquely distinctive effects. For example, a three-dimensional effect could be achieved by combining several enameling methods in one piece.
It’s important to distinguish between true Rene Lalique pieces and the work of his son and granddaughter. For collectors, coming across a genuine Rene Lalique article is like hitting the jackpot, since most of his existing pieces are either with private collectors or in museums. The largest collection, consisting of 145 pieces, can be found in Lisbon’s Gulbenkiam Museum. Occasionally the museum will also lend out small batches of the collection for short periods to museums across the world.
Sometimes a single piece of Rene Lalique jewelry may actually turn up in an auction such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s, and when that happens, it’s truly an event. Unique pieces of Lalique jewelry that were never mass-produced will typically fetch a winning bid in the six figures. In a 2009 Sotheby’s auction in New York, a Lalique roses brooch made from diamonds, pearls, glass, and enamel sold for $86,500, several times more than its presale estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. In November, 2010, an even more dramatic example of estimate-crushing occurred at a Christie’s auction in Geneva. At this sale a 40 cm necklace of pearls, brown glass, white enamel, and gold, c. 1900, sold for an astounding figure of $333,661, more than quadruple the high estimate of $81,000. Opportunities to bid are rare, but determined collectors can keep track of Lalique pieces coming up for auction through the website, rlalique.com.
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