René Lalique’s brilliant innovations made the business he founded in 1885 an international success and it is his Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs that continue to inspire a new generation of the company’s artists. Daisy Zhong reports.
At the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, René Lalique caused a sensation with his Art Nouveau jewellery. The Lalique pavilion stood out with its wrought-iron grille featuring butterfly-women linked by their spread wings as the centerpiece.
“You thought you were dreaming when you saw these beautiful things… a cockerel holding an enormous yellow diamond in its beak; a huge dragonfly with a woman’s body and diaphanous wings, enameled country scenes sparkling with diamond dew-drops; ornaments like pine cones,” noted Henri Vever, a French jeweller, art collector and author.
René Lalique, founder of the eponymous house renowned for its crystal and glass craftsmanship, established his name as one of the world’s most important jewellers at the beginning of the 20th century, and was a pioneer of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. When he unveiled his jewellery at the 1895 Salon du Champ de Mars, the curator of the Musée du Luxembourg described Lalique’s work as having “profoundly altered the basic condition and appearance of modern jewellery… from what is merely a brilliant industry to the status of an art”.
Raising jewellery to an art – the curator’s compliment became widely known –led Lalique’s Art Nouveau jewellery to become highly sought-after by museums and collectors. His pieces are now on show in more than 40 museums around the world from France to Japan. Among his admirers were the actress Sarah Bernhardt, glass artist Émile Gallé and art connoisseur Calouste Gulbenkian.
In 1910 René Lalique left jewellery design and dedicated himself to glass-making, and over a century would pass before the House of Lalique launched a haute jewellery collection again. It chose 2012’s Baselworld, one of the world’s biggest annual watch and jewellery shows, to unveil The Sacred Fire Odyssee collection, which features the story of Vesta, a Greek goddess who is the guardian of sacred fire and a symbol of eternity, paying homage to René Lalique and symbolising the rebirth of Lalique high jewellery. The latest collection, launched in October 2013 and titled The Myth of Love, is another tribute to the Art Nouveau themes that characterise Lalique’s design.
The mastermind behind the reincarnation of Lalique’s high jewellery is Quentin Obadia, who was approached by Lalique owner Silvio Denz in 2010.
It is evident that many of the pieces in the new Lalique collections are reminiscence of the masterpieces that Henri Vever encountered at the Lalique pavilion in 1900, and evoke similar sentiments.
To weave memory and creativity into designs that embody the Lalique aesthetic, Quentin Obadia keeps the signature inspirations of Lalique in creating about 60 pieces in The Myth of Love. In the collection, a dragonfly spreads its sparkling wings and lily of the valley petals shine in the splendored facets; while the phoenix and the flaming peacock gleam in a collusion of beauty. The jewellery is a symphony of semi-precious stone, enamel, diamond, gold and crystal.
“Art Nouveau was about nature, and reinvented it. Lalique used those themes and I am doing the same,”
says Obadia. Art Nouveau was popular in Western Europe and the United States from the 1880s until the First World War, advocating nature as the prime source of inspiration for artists seeking to break boundaries.
As one of the leading Art Nouveau artists Lalique was greatly inspired by the unruly aspects of the natural world. He frequently featured the butterfly, moth and dragonfly. The minute details of many of his pieces were so skillfully crafted that the effects are sumptuous and tantalising. Figures appear to be moving; flowers blossom and droop; leaves rustle in the wind and pine trees bend under the snow.
As an emblematic figure of the Lalique House, the butterfly and its movements captivated the master jeweller. Lalique interpreted it many times, including a brooch project entitled Peacock of the Night. Obadia says: “I studied the drawings of his butterflies. What he wanted to show was the texture, transparency and pigments of the wings, and I have tried to translate them to my own vocabulary.”
In Obadia’s Lalique vocabulary the mythical character Psyche spreads her butterfly wings of gold and lacquer adorned with gems. The unfolding of their flowing line, in idiosyncratic Lalique style, is a metaphor of freedom and a poetic recreation of the world into an “enchanting cosmogony” of which women, sometimes nymphs, goddess or fairies, are eternal guardians.
The redesign of the butterfly is one example of how Obadia dived into Lalique’s patrimony. “Before I started designing the collection, I went to see the archives, which are protected in a bank safe. I went there for two or three weeks, three days a week, to fill my mind with all the drawings and all his inspirations. Then I left all the archives in the safe. I didn’t take photographs. And then I started drawing.”
He acknowledges that it is a real challenge to inject fresh innovation to work that is synonymous with perfection. “Rene’s work, some of the pieces, I just found them impeccable. So sometimes it’s hard because I need to think about ‘what can I bring’.”
Obadia believes that what distinguishes a brand such as Lalique is the heritage and stories behind it. “I want people to experience our brand. We have many stories to tell. I went to the archives, getting my mind full of images, then I had some stories that I can tell.”
An essential part of the brand heritage is the fact that René Lalique was unrivalled in his innovative experimentation of materials and techniques, probably the most important factor that distinguishes him from his predecessors and contemporaries. He never hesitated to try new techniques, such as enameling, and materials such as horn, ivory, semi-precious stones and glass.
Azuka Otsuka, curator of the Lalique Museum, Hakone, a private Japanese museum founded by entrepreneur Kazuyasu Hata and dedicated introducing people to the beauty of Lalique work, explains how René Lalique, unusually, used stones for their artistic value rather than price tag.
“Before René Lalique made jewellery, craftsmen used to arrange many precious stones. In a sense, the value of stones was equal to the value of the jewellery. Lalique didn’t employ a lot of expensive gemstones, and he used inexpensive materials. In other words, he expressed the value of his jewellery as the beauty of the design not the price of materials.”
Indeed the success at the 1900 Exposition was only the beginning for Lalique to conduct his “experiments” with more freedom and set new standards for modern jewellery.
Obadia places high importance on this spirit in leading the brand in the future. “René Lalique at that time was not following the trends. He was doing his own work, and followed his own path; I’m trying to do the same. Marketing is not my part. I am only concerned about how I can project my own stories, my universe, onto a small piece of jewellery.”
“To me a luxury brand not just work for today but for the 100 years that are coming. This is my duty.”
A true work of art never devalues as time goes by – it transcends. The renaissance of Lalique high jewellery was made possible because of the brand’s rich inheritance. This legacy exists because René Lalique’s groundbreaking work elevated jewellery to art. His brilliant imagination and passion for experimentation will continue to illuminate the art of jewellery making today, as did a hundred years ago.
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