The term revolutionary cannot be so aptly applied to many in the history of jewellery as it can to René-Jules Lalique.
Instrumental in defining the aesthetic of the Art Nouveau style, he was by his own admission, “always determined to create something completely new”. He was inspired by the intrinsically decorative elements of the natural world and his jewellery is characterised by fluid lines, a gentle colour palette and his painterly use of enamel combined with sculpted gold work and non-traditional materials such as carved ivory and horn. Lalique’s interest in nature began at a young age, fostered on long walks through the countryside of Champagne, the area he was born in 1860. His love of drawing and sketching, also apparent from childhood, led him to Sydenham School of Art in London when he was 18 shortly after completing a two year apprenticeship with the renowned French jeweller Louis Aucoc. Here he was able to use his newly acquired knowledge of the practical aspects of jewellery-making to inform and perfect his drawings which had, unsurprisingly, become focused on designs for jewellery.
He returned to Paris in 1880 and by the following year he was successfully working for himself, selling his designs to an ever increasing number of workshops and retailers including Vever, Boucheron and Destape. His work at this time, whilst frequently depicting flora and fauna, is still very much rooted in the tradition of diamond set jewellery which was dominant during this period. In 1886 he was offered the opportunity to buy Destape’s business; Lalique’s decision to accept was to prove one of the most defining moments of his career. In charge of his own workshop, his creativity was no longer limited by the whims and desires of his clients and his imagination flowered.
The following decade saw his distinctive style gradually evolve as his desire to replicate the colours of nature drew him to experiment with enamel which enabled the painterly effects he was looking to achieve. He incorporated glass into his pieces along with ivory, horn, pearls and opal, favouring gems for their colour and translucency rather than their value. It was during this time that he met the actress Sarah Bernhardt and a friendship was born that saw him create extravagant suites of jewellery for her stage performances as well as personal pieces.
Lalique’s first depiction of a female nude came in about 1894 and as he might have expected, it caused much controversy. Undeterred, he continued to use her and his appreciation of her form and femininity adds much to his work particularly in the long swathes of luxuriantly flowing hair that became one of his, and Art Nouveau’s, most distinctive decorative motifs. In 1895, an introduction to the collector Calouste Gulbenkian led to the most significant commission of Lalique’s jewellery career. Gulbenkian requested 145 pieces over which Lalique would have complete artistic freedom; it took over 15 years to complete and this collection remains an extraordinary testament to his creative imagination.
Lalique’s triumphant exhibition at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris exposed him to a wider audience and attracted huge attention; he was declared a true innovator and an artist jeweller. In 1905 he opened a store in Place Vendôme selling jewellery as well as glass, a decorative medium he had been exploring for some years alongside his jewellery. Collaboration with the perfumer Coty soon followed with Lalique designing both labels and bottles for the company; it would eventually lead him to set up his own glassworks in order to ensure accurate production of his designs. After a final exhibition in the Place Vendôme store in 1912, he turned his back on jewellery completely. He dedicated the remainder of his career to designing glass on both a small and large scale, from vases and dishes to stained glass windows, fountains and decorative panels. He died in 1945, leaving the company in the hands of his son Marc. Despite the relatively short time Lalique designed and produced jewellery he had a profound affect on the style of the period and was acknowledged by the contemporary jeweller Vever as “..a great artist, the master of a school; his work is exhilarating and has turned French jewellery into a beacon for the rest of the world.”