The Story Behind Lalique
By Chad Smith
If you’ve ever looked at a piece of Lalique glass and wondered what the story is behind that matte, smoky finish and those perfectly smooth lines, where those exotic and provocative motifs come from and why the work of René Lalique and the Lalique Company even to this day seem to have a je ne sais quoi, then the Lalique Museum in France is for you.
The museum, which opened in 2011 in Wingen-sur-Moder, the Alsatian town where the Lalique factory is also located, not only celebrates the Lalique of today, but also, through clear exhibits, traces René Lalqiue’s development as an artist, first as a draftsman, then a jewelry maker, and shows how all the experience he acquired in these initial artistic incarnations culminated in his work with glass. In addition, the museum shows how Lalique’s artistic ideals and innovative techniques are still implemented today.
The first aspect of the museum that helps visitors get an education about Lalique is its actual setting. The 9,700-square-foot museum was built on the grounds of a former glass-producing factory, which operated for about 150 years in the 18th and 19th centuries among scores of other glassworks that were once present in Alsace and the region west of it, Lorraine. (Both areas are rich with natural elements ideal for glassmaking.) The fact that the Lalique Museum was built on the site of this historic glassworks, deep in the heart of glass-making country, really helps show how Lalique was part of a tradition.
Before Lalique became famous for his work with glass, he worked in other artistic realms. And this quickly becomes clear once you pass through the turnstile and enter the actual museum.
One of the first exhibits showcase the drawings Lalique made during his first job, which he began at 16, as a draftsman for a jewelry company. Though the drawings are somewhat basic, one can already see the trappings of a style that would later become signature Lalique.
According to the text accompanying the drawings, the walks that Lalique would take as a child with his grandfather in the Champagne countryside opened his eyes to the beauty found in nature and ultimately inspired him to use natural forms in his art. As such, the drawings that Lalique made as a draftsman for necklaces, pendants, earrings, even elaborate bracelets that cover most of the hand, incorporate bugs, birds, swans, snakes or animal forms like wings and pincers. Interestingly enough, the color in these drawings, though scarce — a little bit of indigo and turquoise for beetles’ shells, a few dabs of lavender for flower petals — is as magnificent and true as the color that would later be seen in his glass.
There’s no need to rush things, however, because Lalique, as a nearby exhibit shows, still had another artistic incarnation to go through before the “main event,” as it were.
The exhibit showcases jewelry that Lalique made just prior to and after the turn of the 20th century, which was the height of Art Nouveau. The collection, composed of about 50 pieces, is certainly not the biggest of Lalique jewelry. In fact, other collections, like one in a museum in Hakone, Japan, are much bigger. But what the Lalique Museum excels at is clearly showing what made Lalique’s jewelry special, almost revolutionary, and how his work and experiments in jewelry informed his future work.
See that small glass pendant into which the form of a nude woman has been engraved? The nude female form was a motif that had not really been used in jewelry until the advent of Lalique, who chose to use it because he was inspired by the natural world and believed that the nude female form was one of the most beautiful and striking in nature.
See that brooch of a woman’s head juxtaposed with daisies? See the brilliant color of the daisies? They are enamel, a glass-like substance that can take on magnificent color after being altered with metal oxides. Lalique often used enamel when making jewelry, and it would be his growing interest in this substance that would lead to his becoming more deeply involved in glass. Which is a perfect time to mention the most impressive exhibit of the Lalique Museum, the one that all the other exhibits have, more or less, been leading up to: the perfume bottles.
By 1900, Lalique, plagued by forgers of his jewelry designs, was starting to grow restless with jewelry making and had begun experimenting heavily with enamels and even with glass. For a time, he pursued both activities, displaying jewelry in a shop he had in central Paris and working with the enamels and glass in a workshop he kept west of the city.
But when Lalique met the perfume maker and businessman François Coty, in 1907, who at the time was searching for someone to design glass perfume bottles that essentially were pieces of art in themselves, the scales tipped and Lalique, by then 47 years old, decided to devote himself to working with glass.
It is here, at this main exhibit located at the center of the museum and comprised of about six large display cases where we can really see, in distilled fashion, how splendidly and magnificently Lalique brought his knowledge and previously acquired artistic skills to bear on his work with glass.
There are perfume bottles, some made for Coty, others for various other perfume makers, engraved with nude female figures, some holding onto tree branches, some gracefully dancing in a circle; perfume bottle stoppers in the shape of wilted leaves, soaring birds and Lily-of-the-Valley flowers, or engraved with magnificently detailed peacocks, sparrows, even snakes. And then there is the color, perfume bottles with vivid enamel coloring — sunburst orange, midnight blue, sea-foam green.
“The variation of bottles is just wild,” said a museum visitor, Ingrid Braune, of Heidelberg, Germany.
According to Desaleux, the communications director, though the museum tries to acquire more pieces through grants and appropriations from Wingen-sur-Moder (there are currently a total of 650 pieces in the museum), all of the perfume bottles on display belong to Silvio Denz, chairman of Art & Fragrance, the Swiss company that now owns Lalique. As it is, Denz, who acquired Lalique in 2008, is not only a major collector of Lalique, but also a big champion of the brand. In fact, in a press statement issued just after Art & Fragrance bought Lalique, Denz said that his chief aims with the acquisition were to increase the output of the Wingen-sur-Moder factory, increase sales efficiency and strengthen the Lalique brand throughout the world.
The exhibit shows the various stages involved in the creation of a Lalique vase. And it is at this exhibit where one sees why the signature “Lalique” still carries so much cachet and why the pieces still have that special something.
The vase in the exhibit is the “Bacchantes” model. Originally created in 1927, but still produced today in crystal, the 11-inch-high vase has 10 nude females in various poses depicted around it.
The exhibit itself is set up with video monitors and several Bacchantes vases in various states of completion. Both aid in showing exactly how the vase is made — from mold to kiln to finished product.
Though the process is remarkable and beautiful — the Lalique craftsmen seen in the video monitors call up fire like sorcerers and the vases immediately take on that instantly recognizable matte finish after being submerged in a special acid solution — what’s really astounding is how much handwork still goes into the process.
The mold for the vase, for example, is hand cut and currently only two people possess the level of skill required to create Lalique molds, according to Desaleux. After the vases come out of the kilns, they undergo an immense amount of work, all by hand. Craftsmen armed with small drills and other tools spend hours refining and polishing the pieces until they have eradicated literally every single imperfection.
“Without the human hand, it cannot be so precise; it’s not the same. It wouldn’t have the same finish; it’s not alive and would not be special,” Desaleux said.
Two separate museum visitors checking out the vase exhibit at two separate times even remarked on the abundance of handwork that still goes into the process.
“But I really hope,” one said, “that these traditions won’t fade away.”
Fortunately, it doesn’t look like they will. Nor, for that matter, will the company that embodies them.
Denz, keeping good on his promise to increase the output of Lalique and strengthen the brand, purchased another kiln for the Lalique factory in Wingen-sur-Moder (which is actually the only place in the world where Lalique is produced). France, recognizing the value of Lalique, even subsidized part of the cost of the museum.
As for the museum itself, there is much continued interest. About 50,000 people visit the Lalique Museum each year and though the majority of them are from France, the museum attracts visitors from all over the world.
Not too far from the Lalique Museum, past a landscape characterized by winding forest roads and sweeping clearings, you can also visit the crystal works of Saint-Louis as well as Meisenthal Glassworks. Both have their own museums on site, though Saint-Louis also offers an extensive factory tour.