René Lalique: 7 Things You Need to Know

By Jessica Diamond
Born in Aÿ-en-Champagne, France, René-Jules Lalique (1860-1945) is considered the indisputable master of jewellery design in the Art Nouveau style. Fascinated by 3 central themes – floral, fauna and the female form, his whimsical, lyrical compositions in an array of materials – gold, semi-precious stones, enamel and glass are the perfect encapsulation of the late 19th century pre-Art Deco era.

1. Lalique’s skills as a draftsman were realised at an early age. While studying at the Lycée Turgot in the outskirts of Paris, he received his first award for drawing, at the age of 12.

2. Lalique’s training as a jeweller was three-fold. Initially he served as an apprentice to Parisian jeweller and craftsman Louis Aucoc while concurrently studying at Paris’s Ecole des Arts Décoratifs. Shortly afterwards in 1878 he moved to London and studied for 2 years at Sydenham School of Art in Crystal Palace. It was here that the burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement would have a huge influence on the young designer.

3. By 1881 Lalique was accomplished enough to begin his career as a freelance designer working for amongst others Boucheron and Cartier. Later he would become a rival to both of these iconic maison’s.

4. It was during this time that the Garland Style proved most popular for the Paris elite. Large corsages, brooches, stomachers and tiaras fashioned to mimic floral bouquets or sprays of foliage were in vogue. Lalique embraced this to a degree, but also incorporated a fairytale, mythical and figurative narrative to his jewels, and eschewed the favoured use of large diamonds for stones such as tourmaline, chrysoberyl, cornelian and bloodstone, mixed with coral, ivory, enamel and glass.

Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Melissinde 'La Princesse Lointaine' or Faraway Princess by Edmond Rostand, Theatre de la Renaissance 1895. (Photo by APIC/Getty Images)

5. By 1890 Lalique had his own workshop and atelier, and a workforce of 30. Patronage from actress Sarah Bernhardt in the mid 1890s led to her wearing spectacular stage jewellery designed by him. In 1896 during an evening of celebration to mark Bernhardt’s 30 years as an actress each guest received a silver medal engraved by Lalique with her image. Bernhardt would introduce Lalique to a wealthy Portuguese art collector, Calouste Gulbenkian. He would commission 145 jewelled objects between 1895 and 1912, freeing Lalique up from any financial concerns, while allowing his creativity to soar. A display of his work at the Exposition Universelle in 1900 is considered the peak of his jewellery career; in the same year he was awarded Officer of the French Legion D’Honneur.

6. Less than 10 years later Lalique’s focus would shift; he opened a glass factory in Combe-la-ville near Paris in 1909, and put on his last jewellery show in 1912. Large architectural and interiors commissions and decorative objects would now be his main creative output – from the decoration of the Côte d’Azur Pullman Express train to designing glass doors for Prince Yasuhiko Asaka’s residence in Tokyo, and (the now iconic) glass mascots designed to be mounted on the front of a car.

René Lalique

7. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914 Lalique’s glass output shifted from purely decorative to practical, supplying laboratory glassware for hospitals and vessels used in the production of pharmaceuticals. An even larger facility opened in 1921, and by 1930 he had over 600 craftsmen working for him. German occupation during World War II shut down the factory and it wouldn’t re-open until after the war; sadly Lalique would not see this happen as he died on May 9th 1945.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's

Dazzling Jewels