Alexis Falize (1811 – 1898) was born in the Belgian town of Liège in 1811, the son of a shoemaker whose clients included Alexander I of Russia. The eldest of four children, he was a self-confessed ‘stubborn and temperamental’ boy who found his passion early in life when his father arranged for him to attended drawing classes. His natural artistic aptitude was immediately evident and Alexis would continue to pursue this creative outlet alongside his more academic studies.
After the sudden and untimely death of his father when Alexis was only 11, he was sent to Paris under the guardianship of relatives who supported his education. He left school at 17 and after a succession of different jobs he found himself introduced to the world of fine jewellery when he took an administrative position with the renowned firm of Mellerio dits Meller in 1833. Finding himself surrounded by exquisite jewellery, the young Alexis couldn’t help but be drawn in and spent as much time as he was able handling the jewels, assisting customers and learning as much as he could from his colleagues. His enthusiasm was rewarded and once his employers discovered his talent as a draughtsman he was encouraged to contribute to designs and it wasn’t long before he was conceiving entire suites himself. Much of his work found approval and he began to not only work on designs for stock but also bespoke client commissions. Seeing his designs come to life in the workshops he wanted to understand the processes and skills of the craftsmen who worked there, so he determined to learn everything he could about the manufacturing side of the business.
After two years with Mellerio Alexis left to work for Janisset where he spent the next three years gaining as much experience and knowledge as he could until the opportunity arose for him to buy the workshop of Joureau-Robin (a supplier of Janisset) and become his own master. He took over the premises in the Palais-Royale at the end of 1838 thanks to the generosity of his former employer Madame Janisset who, in exchange for exclusive rights to his work, lent him the money to purchase the workshop. Alexis registered his mark in 1841 and spent the next few years gaining experience and honing his craft whilst continuing to supply Janisset. The Revolution of 1848 resulted in Janisset going bankrupt which consequently freed Alexis from his restrictive covenant with the firm.
Now free to sell his work to anyone he pleased, Alexis’ reputation for original designs and meticulous craftsmanship soon spread. His son Lucien (1839 – 1897) joined him in the business in 1856 aged 17 and would go on to prove an ideal partner for his father. Lucien spent his apprenticeship learning technical skills and developing his design abilities and during this time visited London frequently both to study as well as to explore the museums, historic buildings and International Exhibitions.
Having spent years pursuing his interest in enamel as a decorative medium, Alexis finally exhibited a range of such pieces under his own name for the first time in 1869. His display at the Union Centrale des Beaux-Arts Appliqués à l’Industrie focused largely on cloisonné jewels such as brooches, pendants, châtelaines and earrings and gained a first class medal. In 1871 the firm moved to new premises on the Avenue de l’Opéra and Alexis made Lucien his full partner. They worked together for several years before Alexis’ retirement in 1876 although Lucien would continue to seek his father’s opinion and advice for the rest of his life.
Like his father, Lucien found much inspiration in past eras, particularly the Renaissance as well as in Japanese art and culture. In 1878 he participated in the Exposition Universelle in Paris where he was awarded one of only three Grand Prix (the others going to Boucheron and Massin) as well as the Legion d’Honneur. This large and prestigious fair brought the firm to the attention of a wider audience than ever before and it was shortly after this success that Lucien was approached by Germain Bapst with the idea of joining their firms together. The benefits to both parties seemed clear and in June 1880 the new partnership was formalised. They enjoyed a period of great success, the weight of Bapst’s royal history and long standing clientele marrying well with the current popularity of Falize’s work. In 1882 they moved into new premises that had been purpose built for them to accommodate a splendid showroom as well as workshops and offices. Alongside running the business Lucien travelled widely and often reported on the exhibitions and events he visited in a series of scholarly articles which, along with the transcripts of his popular lectures, were often quoted as authoritative works.
Bapst and Falize dissolved their joint venture amicably in 1892 when the former decided to dedicate himself to the pursuit of academic research and his scholarly ambitions. Lucien was joined two years later by his eldest son André (1872 – 1936) who had recently completed apprenticeships both in Lucerne and Paris with goldsmiths, chasers and designers. Well grounded in all aspects of the trade he was none the less unprepared to have to take sole responsibility for the business just three years later following the death of his father who suffered a fatal stroke in September 1897.
Despite the financial difficulties he found the firm in (as a result of some unfortunate investment decisions by his late father) André formed a partnership with his two brothers Jean (1874 – 1943) and Pierre (1875 – 1953) and proceeded to pour himself into re-establishing equilibrium for the company. He was a hugely charismatic man, in contrast to the more serious and reserved personalities of his father and grandfather and he had a large circle of friends including ministers, politicians, actresses and writers, many of whom became clients and vice versa. Falize Frères exhibited at the 1900 Exposition Universelle (aided by the financial generosity of a friend of their father) and their display combined works by Lucien, some collaborations between Lucien and André, pieces that had been started by Lucien but completed by his sons and some entirely new works created by the three brothers. These new pieces were largely in the Art Nouveau style that was sweeping Paris at the time and that would prove a source of inspiration for the firm over the next decade. The quality of their designs and craftsmanship was recognised and they were awarded two Grand Prix, a fitting tribute to the past as well as recognition of the present.
André’s determination and fierce loyalty to his father’s aesthetic principles were initially a great advantage. The firm secured several important commissions during the early years of the 20th century including that for the Crown Jewels of King Peter I of Serbia which they made in 1904 as well as several pieces for the Romanian royal family. But as times changed and fashions moved on, his difficulty in moving with them proved hard for the firm to overcome. And like so many other jewellers, Falize Frères suffered greatly both during and after the War. Shortly after it ended, Jean made the difficult decision to leave the firm in order to pursue a more stable income with which to support his wife and two children. With Pierre having had minimal involvement since the beginning, it was left to André to keep the firm running. Unfortunately he had neither the creative design capabilities of his father nor his business acumen and this, coupled with his extravagant spending, saw the company gradually decline. Their last order book dates from December 1919 to July 1935 and records only 262 entries in what was a 16 year period.
The firm had moved to the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 1911 but by the time they moved again in 1930 (a sale necessitated by a lack of funds) there was little remaining stock and when Andre passed away in 1936 what was left of the once prestigious firm, died with him.