René Jules Lalique was one of the most influential and prolific artists of the last 150 years. His story spans nearly a century; his career was marked by triumphs in several mediums, over several decades, and during two of the most revolutionary phases of Twentieth Century art. Today he is as well regarded for his impact on the modern perception of jewelry, glass work, and objets d’art as he is for his beautiful, highly sought creations.
René Lalique’s career began at the Collège Turgot where, at the age of twelve, he developed an interest in drawing. This education did not end until more than a decade later—after he had passed through the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, an apprenticeship with popular Parisian jeweler Louis Aucoc, two years at the Crystal Palace School of Art in Sydenham, London, and evening classes with sculptor Justin Lequien at the Ecole Bernard Palissy. By his time with Lequien, Lalique had begun designing jewelry in earnest, freelancing for private clients and a variety of firms—two of which would later become Cartier and Boucheron.
By 1890, Lalique’s reputation was such that he could open a shop in the chic opera district on the Rue Thérèse. By 1895 he had exhibited in the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français, and in 1897 he won the Salon’s first prize for a set of ivory and horn hair combs. At the turn of the century he was regarded as one of the world’s finest jewelers, causing a great stir at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and winning the Croix de la Légion d’Honneur at the World’s Fair in Brussels.
Lalique was uniquely lauded because, for a jeweler, he had a singular focus on, and appreciation of, beauty above all else; he chose gems not for their market price but for their aesthetic appeal and cohesion with the rest of a piece. Because the value of his work was driven by beauty and not the price of its components, his output was appreciated in ways jewelry had never been regarded before; in other words, Lalique did more than just elevate his craft: He forced his contemporaries to confront his work, and that of all Jewelers before and after him, as high art.
Lalique never stopped evolving, and what made him such a striking and important figure in the dynamic world he inhabited was his knack for staying ahead of the curve. By Art Nouveau’s apex, the Exposition Universelle of 1900, Art Nouveau’s greatest champion and most famous Jeweler was already pushing into new territory, working more and more in glass and forging a style that would become known as Art Deco. By the end his career he had done as much for Art Deco and glass-work as for Art Nouveau and jewelry.
In 1910 Lalique took over a glass factory at Combs-la-Ville, France and in 1912 held his first all glass show at his shop on the Place Vendôme in Paris. Since 1905 he had used the shop to sell the perfumes of his friend François Coty, bottled in Lalique designs. It was the first time perfume had come in anything but the simplest of containers. This was hardly unusual—while best remembered for his vases, Lalique used glass to make everything under the sun, from utilitarian pieces to hood ornaments. His incredible glass-work is noted for its recessed details, half abstract geometrics and color inlay.
By 1919 Lalique had taken over a much larger factory in Wingen-sur-Moder, France, and with the help of a staff of 600—and in an attempt to make both glass-work and his art available to all—was mass producing glass of his own marvelous designs. He continued this endeavor until his death in 1945; and even had he not wowed the world at the Paris Exhibition of 1925, decked out the Normandie luxury liner (1935) or fitted the Côte d’Azur Pullman Express train (1929), René Jules Lalique’s legacy would be secure in this, bringing the public glass and design they never could have enjoyed without him.