Thursday, 14 February 2013

Introduction to Rene Lalique Jewelers

A wooded landscape haircomb of horn, gold and enamel (c. 1899-1900), enclosing a luminous moonlit enameled landscape of trees and a distant lake.
Rene Lalique (1860-1945) was the undisputed genius of Art Nouveau jewelry and arguably the greatest artist-jeweler ever known. A leader of the Art Nouveau movement as a whole, he was a man of exceptional talent, imagination and versatility. In 1900 the French critic Leonce Benedite described him as "the true innovator, the one who tore down old barriers, overturned entrenched traditions and created a new language." Single-handed he broke through the established conventions of 19th-century jewelry design and manufacture, and used the skills in which he had been trained to create instead an entirely new expression for the art of the jeweler.

By the year 1900, as one century was gently turning into the next, women too were changing from toys into temptresses and Lalique was transforming their jewels from trivial trinkets into great works of art. As the new century emerged, metamorphosis was in the air; things were not always what they appeared to be.
A speedwell bracelet of gold, glass, enamel (c. 1900-02), in which the thick flowering plants are made of moulded lavender blue glass, tapering into gold and enamel buds, stems and leafy borders.

The seemingly riotous Belle Époque was rocked by an undercurrent of sadness and pessimism. The fin de siècle atmosphere was filled with nostalgia for the dying century, mixed with fear and hope for the new age. This theme of turbulent change and transformation is one of the most important and bewitching features of Lalique's Art Nouveau jewelry.

An owls bracelet of gold, chalcedony, enamel and glass (c. 1900-01), in which five plaques form a frieze of moulded frosted glass owls, each sitting on an enameled branch of a pine tree set against a moonlit sky of plique-a-jour enamel.
It was in 1900 that Lalique triumphed at the great Exposition Universelle in Paris. Crowds flocked to Lalique's showcase at the Exposition to press their noses against the window and gaze in amazement at the fantasy creatures and dream objects that were causing such a stir in Paris and all around the world. His display was eerie, erotic and eye-catching.

A flower and bee haircomb of horn gold, enamel, opal and glass (c. 1902-05). A carved opal bee hovers on one of the three luscious, umbelliferous blooms; the comb's teeth are shaped as the stems of the flowers. Black velvet bats swooped against a grey gauze star-studded night sky. Below this a semicircular grille was formed by five paginated bronze figures, a tribute to femininity and perhaps at the same time to the American dancer Loie Fuller, who also had a triumph at the Exposition Universelle. With her free-form serpentine dances, in which she seemed to change into one of Lalique's winged jewels, a strange, hybrid creature with floating incandescent wings, she personified both the swirling Art Nouveau line and the theme of metamorphosis.

Lalique was hailed by art critics as the emancipator and master of modern French jewelry. He became a national hero, compared to the greatest artists of all time. Lalique won a Grand Prix, was awarded the rosette of the Legion d'Honneur; and orders for jewels and objects poured in from rich and famous admirers all over the world. His future was secured. But like all overnight sensations, he had been struggling with his creations and their acceptance for many years, trying to find fresh and exciting ways to express his imagination and to break completely with the past.

A pair of Medusa head cufflinks in foiled glass and metal (c. 1920).
Born on 6 April 1860 in the little town of Ay in the Marne region of France, Rene Lalique was the only child of a merchant of novelty goods. The family moved to the suburbs of Paris in 1862, but returned to the countryside for holidays, thus giving Lalique the chance to study the flowers, birds and insects that were to provide the dominating theme of his jewelry. Details of Lalique's life are scarce. In his definitive work on 19th-century French jewelry, the jeweler and historian Henri Vever tells us that Lalique first showed signs of mixing artistry with entrepreneurial talent when, at 15, he began painting gouache flower miniatures on thin ivory plaques, which he later sold.

When his father died in 1876, Lalique was forced to leave school to earn a living and was apprenticed to the Paris jeweler Louis Aucoc. After two years he went to London to study at the Sydenham college in South London, at a time when art schools in England were far more progressive than in France and involved with the thriving Arts and Crafts movement. The college was probably the Sydenham School of Art which had been established in the original Crystal Palace, and moved to Sydenham in 1854.

A rose corsage ornament of gold, glass, amethyst and enamel (c. 1905-10). The roses are of moulded rose pink glass, their thorny stems of enameled gold. Returning to Paris in 1880, Lalique would naturally have been immersed in the reawakening of artistic interest that led up to Art Nouveau. He worked for various manufacturers, then as a free-lance designer, all the time teaching himself, ex-tending his own talents, particularly by studying sculpture and drawing. During the early 1880s, he went into business with a family friend, M. Varenne, at 84 Rue de Vaugirard. Lalique created the designs and Varenne sold them to various jewelers.

They were painted in bright yellow, to look like goldwork, on a black background. This association lasted for two years. Lalique's early designs of the 1880s, as illustrated in Vever's book, were basically traditional, diamond set jewels of the type in demand by his customers, the leading manufacturers and retailers of Paris such as Vever, Cartier and Boucheron. He made diamond set roses, brooches designed as lively, twittering birds on branches, or a simple ear of corn. Even at this stage, his work showed a lightness and vitality that set it apart from the rest.

A wooded landscape dog collar plaque of gold, opals, enamel and diamonds (c. 1898). A lake of carved opal- shimmers between gold trees wound around with green enameled leaves. In 1884 he exhibited his own jewels for the first time at an exhibition of the Crown Jewels in the Louvre. To extend the show, a display of industrial arts was added, in which Lalique was invited to take part. His display was modest but it did succeed in attracting the attention of Alphonse Fouquet, the leading Paris jeweler whose firm was later to create spectacular Art Nouveau jewels.

This peacock corsage ornament of gold, opal, enamel and diamonds (c. 1898-99) is a quintessential Art Nouveau jewel. An important year for Lalique was 1885. At that time he took over the Place GailIon workshops of Jules Destape, one of his customers, and became independent for the first time. His success was such that in 1887 he took over another workshop in the Rue Quatre Septembre. Then in 1890 he moved his entire operation to 20 Rue Therese, at the corner of the Avenue de l'Opera, where he lived above the shop with his new wife, the daughter of the sculptor Auguste Ledru. In this new building he was able to decorate his atelier and his home to his own liking, and this secure environment helped his imagination to flow more freely. Here too he began his experiments with glass, presumably as an extension of his work with enameling techniques, since enamel is a form of glass.

It was not until 1895 that Lalique publicly exhibited his jewels (as opposed to designs) under his own name, at the Salon of the Societe' des Artistes Francais where the decorative arts were allowed for the first time. Here he showed a cloak clasp in the prevailing Renaissance manner, its seemingly conventional format contra-dieted by the addition of a naked female form that caused much comment and controversy. It was the first sign of Lalique's famous "shock" tactic, always delivered in a deceptively seductive package of line, colour and composition.

A guelder rose haircomb of horn, gold, enamel and diamonds (c. 1902-03). The patented horn is carved with softly hanging leaves and three heavy snowball-shaped plants. From the mid-1890s his jewelry began to show a strong sculptural element, combining classicism with the sinuous movement of Art Nouveau. Nymphs and sea maidens carved in ivory fight against the currents of the ocean, or their own sensuality, in their struggle towards a new century and new freedom. In 1894, Lalique adapted the technique of tour a reduire, a process familiar to engravers and medalists and widely used for making coins. It involved a ma-chine for reducing or scaling down a design so that the complex detailing carved on a large master model could then be transferred to much smaller surfaces, without sacrificing fine definition. Lalique was the first to apply this technique to jewelry, working initially on ivory reliefs. The experiment was a great success, immediately copied by leading Paris jewelers. 
By the 1890s Lalique's gold work was also showing distinctive signs of a new sculptural fluidity. An important characteristic of his jewels and of the best Art Nouveau jewelry is the tendency of the materials towards deliquescence: he was able to turn gold into a substance that seemed almost liquid, flowing like life's blood or sap in constantly moving lines that suggested energy and growth. At this time he was also gradually adding more unusual, acutely observed motifs from nature. 

He was fascinated by curious aspects of plant or animal life and concentrated on intriguing specimens, whether exotic or every day, from the surreal orchid and luscious lily or iris, to the thistle, hazelnut branch or willow catkin. In tune with all Art Nouveau designers, he took an interest in plant structure, in stems, leaves and in the bud, a charming allusion to the springtime of artistic fervor.

 thistle corsage ornament of gold, enamel, glass, diamonds and aquamarine (c. 1905-07), in which the thistles are of moulded glass, stained blue-green, and set in a spiky frame of enamel and diamond foliage. Silver, London He focused also on the decay and rebirth of the natural world, choosing wilting leaves and petals, world-weary anemones or poppies, over-blown roses, or the humblest field flowers, like cow parsley or thistles, so light and ephemeral with their soft seedheads about to disintegrate with the next breath of wind. Lalique used his fluid gold work, alive with enamels, to convey the dynamic forces of organic life: crisp and curling autumn leaves, rippling water, trailing branches, budding stems, gnarled and knotty roots of trees.

A dragonfly corsage ornament of gold, enamel, chrysoprase, moonstones and diamonds (c. 1897-98). This spectacular hybrid dragonfly of immense proportions and striking allusions to metamorphosis and female sexuality is perhaps the most memorable of Lalique's jewels: Lalique's vision of nature was closely linked to prevailing symbolist ideas and thought. His art depicted what the poet Mallarme referred to as a "veiled essence of reality", with a -highly disciplined emotional intensity that became achingly life-like, compelling and often uncomfortably decadent.

Lalique was a master at spotting the potential of techniques from other areas of the decorative arts, and adapting and improving them for use in jewelry manufacture. He was never a slave to the tyranny of the diamond, never intimidated by the intrinsic value of gems. He chose materials only for their artistic worth, for their value to his compositions and portrayal of nature. Taking advantage of the progressive art glass movement in France at the time, Lalique became gradually more involved with glassmaking, in a renewed effort to create an entirely new form of jewel. His early one-off glass objects were made using the cireperdue or "lost wax" method of casting, a process borrowed from his goldsmithing techniques or from sculpture.

Wood nymph cloak clasp of gold, glass and enamel, which was widely illustrated in contemporary journals after it appeared at the Paris Salon d'Automne in 1905. Below From the late 1890s he began to incorporate glass motifs into his jewelry, daring to mix a valueless material with precious metals and gems. He developed his own special glass, a demicrystal that was spark ling yet malleable. The shapes were cast in moulds and then finished by hand and wheel-carved to obtain a high degree of definition. Often they were painted with enamels, or stained to produce the effect of a patina.

A grape and vine diadem of gold, horn, enamel, rock-crystal and mother-of-pearl, which captures the fin de siècle mood of melancholy so forceful in Lalique's jewels. Alongside his glass experiments, Lalique's use of enamels became more adventurous and an integral part of almost every jewel that came out of his workshop.

His use of colour and texture to suit his subject matter is unrivalled, his techniques masterful, in particular the open-backed translucent or plique-a-jour enamel, the most spectacular and complicated of enameling effects. In this process, metal cloisons were fixed to a base which would either not adhere to the enamel when fired, or which could be dissolved easily by acid after firing.

Lalique improved the method by using saw-pierced sheets of gold for cloisons, usually with an acid-soluble cop-per backing, making a much sturdier framework. His striking application of plique-a-jour is seen to perfection on his most macabre and memorable jewel, the monumental dragonfly corsage ornament, and now in the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. The creature's wings of blue-green plique-it-jour are like thin membranes, fragile and veined, gleaming with foiled enamels.

A damselflies necklace of gold enamel aquamarines and diamonds (c. 1900-02). The delicate hovering insects are entwined to form curvilinear Art Nouveau shapes.In 1896 Lalique exhibited his first horn jewel, a bracelet, followed in the next few years by a series of sensational horn ornaments, mostly haircombs, modeled into extraordinary organic motifs, glistening softly with gems, enamels, or with patination. Horn is an organic substance akin to plastic, an intransigent material, difficult to work. Lalique experimented tirelessly with techniques of carving and pressing the horn into moulds when it was heated and therefore malleable.

The use of such a humble material marked another important break with tradition, as the material had been used in previous eras for small objects but not for important jewelry. Lalique was attracted by the natural colours and texture of the tactile material with its shifting clouds of misty translucency which he coloured, stained and carved to varying degrees of thickness to obtain different effects of simulating nature. Once again he was able to turn this tough material into a seemingly soft, floating substance, like the gossamer silver-coated wings of butterflies, velvet-soft clusters of spent petals. Perhaps the most entrancing technique associated with Lalique's horn jewelry was the "bloom" or iridescent coating he introduced a patina which looked like an organic, sometimes ghostly skin.

An orchid diadem of gold, horn ivory and topaz (c.1903-04). The exotic hothouse orchid, a symbol of the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century, was treated realistically by Lalique with the stress on its sexuality. In 1895 Lalique contributed jewels to the opening exhibition of S. Bing's Paris shop "La Maison de l'Art Nouveau", which gave the movement its name. Bing had been a leading Paris dealer in Oriental objects at a time of enormous interest in everything Japanese, when indeed Japonisme became the single most important contributing factor to Art Nouveau. The leaders of the incipient movement were captivated by the simplicity of Japanese design, the economy of line that produced the most striking effects, the asymmetrical compositions and, above all, the deep reverence for nature. Japanese artists were able to portray nature with intimacy and drama, but with-out actually copying every surface detail. For Lalique, nature occupied a place of equal importance in life and art, and his transition from Japanese influence to Art Nouveau was particularly smooth.

 He understood the Japanese fascination with random patterns of nature, the curling planes of the iris petals, and the haphazard design of fallen sycamore seeds. In his moody, nightmarish designs Lalique also interpreted the tendency of the Japanese to frighten them-selves with images of the supernatural, the spirits that might haunt their dark pine forests, majestic mountains, and cascading waters.

A geometric brooch of gold and citrines (1904-05) an early prediction of Art Deco form. Like the Japanese, Lalique was a brilliant master of atmosphere. He created a series of jewels depicting seasons such as winter woodlands sparkling in icy stillness, and jewels evoking different times of day: bright sunlight rippling on carved opal water, and gleaming on diamond studded shores, moonlight shining through a veil of cloud onto dusky owls. Lalique's perfection of cloisonné and plique-a-jour enamel was a further tribute to a great Japanese skill, while the large number of haircombs in his output paid homage to these decorative ornaments that played such an important role in femininity and daily life in Japan.

It was in the mid 1890s that Lalique began working with the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. Her flamboyant and adventurous personality acted as a catalyst on Lalique's fertile imagination at a crucial point in his career. He was probably introduced to Bernhardt by Robert de Montesquiou, the aesthete and critic. Montesquiou was very encouraging to young artists, and both he and Bernhardt commissioned from Lalique rings set with star sapphires, which they exchanged. Lalique made Bernhardt's stage jewels between 1891 and 1894 for her roles as Iseyl and Gismonde and designed jewels for various productions of Theodora, which may or may not have been made up. An accomplished artist and sculptress herself, Bernhardt was both patroness and inspiration to the artists and designers around her.

A cherries haircomb of horn, enamel gold and diamonds. Some of the cherries are of carved stained horn, others overlaid with enamel, their stems set with diamonds. Shown at the Paris Salon in 1903. Undoubtedly Lalique's work for Bernhardt and for the theatre encouraged his own impulse towards drama and fantasy in jewels, and freed him from the usual inhibitions of size, cost and materials.

Lalique's portrayal of the female face and figure in his jewelry not only reflects the cult of femininity that dominated the age, but illustrates particular characteristics, including a bizarre blend of sexuality and death. The symbolists were similarly obsessed with woman as a symbol of nature, of fertility, also of predatory seduction. The Belle Époque fell under the spell of its luscious females, singers, actresses, dancers, courtesans.

In Lalique's jewels, sinuously graceful yet classical bodies, always shown in writhing Rodin-like movement, suggest unbridled sensuality, yet the faces are always curiously passive, androgynous, mask-like. To compound this vision, Lalique chose unexpected materials for his female faces, moulded glass shrouded in a ghostly patina of opalescent enamel, or deep turquoise scarred with matrix.

It was probably Bernhardt who introduced Lalique to Calouste Gulbenkian, the gifted and discerning millionaire-collector of fine art and objects. Around 1895 Gulbenkian commissioned from Lalique a series of 145 jewels and objects, giving the artist a free hand and providing the kind of patronage every artist must dream of. The Gulbenkian jewels made from 1895 to 1910 1912 were the most fantastic, original jewels of Lalique's career, and arguably of y age. They marked the high point of Lalique's work and of Art Nouveau jewelry in general. 

A grasshopper necklace of horn and pearls (c. 1902-04). Each of the graduated motifs is composed of two grasshoppers, head to head, of carved and stained horn, with natural baroque pearls held between their front and back feet.The Gulbenkian jewels were shown by Lalique at various exhibitions at the turn of the century, and are now housed permanently at the Museum of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. Although they could all be worn, they were certainly never intended as wearable accessories; they were objects de vitrine, sheer flights of fantasy expressed with consummate skill and artistry, and they represent every aspect of Lalique's talent and imagination from macabre and decadent images to serene and brilliantly observed representations of nature.

The themes of the Gulbenkian jewels illustrate the range of Lalique's decorative vocabulary. Flowers and plant life include soft full-blown roses, the lusciousness of hanging wisteria, heavy, ripe cherries, the Oriental charm of the prunus branch, the exoticism of the orchid and humble charm of field flowers. Reptiles, fish and sea creatures recall the continuous swaying movements of water and suggest pre-historic life, the repulsive elegance of strange animals that dwell at the bottom of the ocean. Insects like grasshoppers look shimmering and translucent, hovering mayflies become magical and ethereal, beetles are black and menacing. 

A pendant of two peacocks on a prunus branch in gold and enamel, facing each other above an opal (c. 1902-03). Lalique made much use of bats, while his bird motifs range from the proud peacock, the gliding swan (symbol of pride and metamorphosis), and cockerel (symbol of France and dawn), through owls and plump doves, to vultures and terrifying eagles in shadowy silhouette. The peacock was the quintessential motif of Art Nouveau jewelry, symbol of nature's magnificence and also of the narcissistic quality of the Art Nouveau movement in general.After 1900 and his overwhelming success at the Exposition Universelle, Lalique was flooded with orders from all over the world.

He took part in further major international exhibitions in Europe and in the United States: Turin 1902, Berlin 1903, and St Louis 1904. With the world-wide revival of interest in the applied and decorative arts, newly established art schools and museums were eager to acquire the finest examples to encourage pupils with talent and potential in their own countries. The Hamburg Museum, directed at the time by Justus Brinckmann, acquired several examples of Lalique's work at the 1900 Exposition Universelle; and in the United States, industrialist Henry Walters purchased a number of jewels directly from Lalique at St Louis in 1904. The latter are now in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore.

Each new unveiling of Lalique's jewels and objects at the various Salons and Exhibitions was an eagerly awaited event, the subject of lengthy critical articles in contemporary art journals. He was invited to exhibit jewels in London at the Grafton Galleries in 1903 and then at Agnews in 1905. Since Gulbenkian was a client of Agnew's, the exhibition included a section devoted to the Gulbenkian jewels and was also honoured with the presence of a jewel, a swan pendant with a border of peacock feathers, belonging to Queen Alexandra.

A winter woodland pendant of gold, glass, enamel and pearl (c. 1899-1900). The central moulded intaglio glass panel shows a frosty lakeside scene within a frame of enameled gold trees. The jewels were expensive: the costliest diadem was priced at €1,000, a sum of money which would certainly have purchased a good conventional diamond equivalent. On the whole, those with sufficiently adventurous, avant-garde taste could not afford Lalique's creation; result the sales at Agnews were not very good. A critic writing of the exhibition in The Studio in 1905 accused Lalique of concentrating "on the imitation of beautiful natural forms in unnatural looking materials, which suggest sometimes an un-pleasant decadence".

In 1902 Lalique moved premises again to 40 Cours la Reine (now Cours Albert Ie), a five-storey town house designed specially to his requirements.

The doors were made of panels of glass with pine cone motifs, echoed in the masonry and wrought-iron balconies. In 1905 he worked briefly with the sculptor Gaston Lachaise, expanding his team of colleagues. However, his jewels were entirely his own creations, and he designed every piece himself. 

A willow catkins corsage ornament of gold, glass and opals (c. 1904-05). In this exquisite study from nature, Lalique has created the effect of light shining through the opal and casting a blue-green glow on the catkins. Also in 1905 he opened a shop at 24 Place Vendome and it was from this boutique that he began to sell the famous perfume bottles and glass objects that were gradually taking more of his time and attention.

Probably disillusioned with the vast flood of second-rate imitations that his jewels had inspired, and anticipating a lack of suitable patrons for his work, Lalique turned his attention entirely to glassmaking around 1910, when he bought the glassworks he had previously rented at Combs-La-Ville. His first glass exhibition was held at the Place Vendome shop in 1912.

His fame as a master glassmaker unfortunately eclipsed his genius as a jeweler and goldsmith. Upon his death in 1945, Calouste Gulbenkian expressed his conviction that Lalique had not yet received full credit for his contribution to the history of art. "I feel, I am absolutely convinced, that justice has not been done him yet. He ranks among the greatest figures in the history of art of all time, and his masterful touch, as well as his exquisite imagination, will excite the admiration of future cognoscenti."

Writer – Thames & Hudson
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