French Crystal-Maker Lalique Has Mastered The Art Of Transforming Silica Into Precious Works Of Art

Whether it was jewelry, tableware, perfume bottles, vases, objets d’art, luxury car mascots, furniture, lighting, wall decorations or architectural elements, visionary artist René-Jules Lalique, born in 1860 in Aÿ in the Champagne region of France, succeeded in sublimating every object he touched, leaving his mark on the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. A leading figure in 19th– and 20th-century jewelry and decorative arts, he was beloved by royalty and the intellectual and artistic elite. He said, “I work relentlessly… with the will to arrive at a new result and to create something never seen before.” Hailed as the father of modern jewelry who apprenticed with jeweler Louis Aucoc and studied goldsmithing and design at the Decorative Arts School in Paris before working for celebrated brands like Boucheron, Vever and Cartier, he started his own business in 1888. Inspired by classical antiquity, Japonism, Byzantine and Florentine art, nature and the female body, the avant-gardist ornamented his creations with unconventional materials, combining gold and precious stones with semi-precious gems, enamel, glass, leather, horn, ivory and mother-of-pearl. His philosophy was: “Better to seek beauty than flaunt luxury.”

Four dragonfly pendant by René Lalique from a private collectionPhoto Studio Y. Langlois

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Lalique then moved into the glassmaking industry at the height of his jewelry career during the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, thereafter abandoning jewelry-making in 1912 to concentrate solely on glass, tired of his jewels being counterfeited. By 1920, he became known as a master glassmaker, and a year later built a second glassworks in Wingen-sur-Moder, Alsace – the only Lalique crystal production facility today – thanks to French government incentives post-WWI to restore this region famous for its long-standing glassmaking tradition, which was well-forested at a time when wood-fired ovens were used. Eschewing the multi-layer, multicolored glass produced by other glassmakers, he favored clear and colorless glass and created forms displaying simplicity, balance and symmetry, experimenting with the effects of transparency, opacity and opalescence inherent in the material and filing 15 patents between 1909 and 1936. Some of his notable commissions include the design of decorations for the legendary Orient Express train and the ocean liner Le Normandie, the luminous fountain representing the springs of France mounted on the esplanade of Les Invalides in Paris, the doors of the palace of Prince Asaka Yasuhiko in Tokyo, and the cross, altar and windows of Notre Dame de Fidélité church in Calvados.

Lalique decor on the Orient Express, Train BleuPhoto courtesy of Lalique

Upon René’s death in 1945, his son Marc instigated the shift from mid-range, utilitarian glass to high-end crystal, and the Lalique factory has only manufactured crystalware since. Crystal is glass containing at least 24 % lead oxide, the ingredient that gives it its weight, brilliance and sonority. Raw materials of silica, potash, lead oxide, cullet – and metal oxides for colored crystal such as cobalt oxide to obtain blue – are mixed in proportions that remain secret. With 230 employees including six with the highly-competitive title of Best Craftsman of France preserving ancestral savoir-faire, the 20,000-sqm factory produces half a million handcrafted items annually. It takes over a dozen years to qualify as a master glassmaker, and the finished product depends on the alchemy between the creative team’s sensibility and the artisans’ skills. Eleven in-house designers in Paris use traditional techniques such as drawing and modeling and new technologies thanks to digitalization and 3D printing before the production process begins. A single piece may require up to 40 different steps. Lalique painstakingly fabricates its own molds by machine then by hand before glassmakers in the hot glass workshops bring molten crystal in electric or pot furnaces to extremely high temperatures (1,400°C). After gathering, shaping, reheating and casting the crystal in the mold via various techniques (including blowing and pressing), they anneal it for one week, as otherwise the thermic shock would cause it to crack, shatter or explode.

In the hot glass workshops of Lalique in Wingen-sur-ModerPhoto François Zvardon

In the cold glass workshops, once retouching, cutting, sculpting and engraving are meticulously carried out manually, the pieces are polished or satin-finished by sandblasting or plunging in acid baths. The parts that have received protective surface treatments remain clear, whereas the uncovered parts become frosted. The contrast between transparency and satin finishing is Lalique’s signature style; playing with light and shadow, it gives relief to pieces. Enameling and gold or platinum painting add touches of color before the item is recooked at around 500°C, running the risk of deformation. Characteristic of Lalique, these cold glass operations showing extreme attention to detail represent two-thirds of the time spent on the manufacturing of each object. Approximately half of all products are rejected during the hot glass procedures and 5 % during the cold glass ones. Items undergo at least 10 rigorous checks throughout the manufacturing process to ensure they satisfy quality standards in terms of technical (absence of defects) and esthetic (faithfulness to the designer’s intentions) criteria. The Lalique name is hand-applied to certify authenticity and quality as the final step.

Decorating a Tourbillon vase, re-edition of a 1926 creationPhoto courtesy of Lalique

Created in 1927 by René Lalique, the best-selling Bacchantes vase decorated with female nudes in bas-relief calls for 30 work hours by 25 craftsmen. The large Anémones vase requires seven hot glassworkers, who gather 25 kg of molten crystal, carefully control the imprinting of the decoration and ensure the good distribution of the crystal in the mold, which demand extreme dexterity and technical mastery in terms of the mold’s temperature and the quantity of crystal. Eight persons and over two days of work are needed just for the cold glass operations. Intense sculpting work is carried out to redefine each anemone and remove seams, bubbles and other flaws, while manual polishing is an exercise in precision to reach the tiniest imperfections hidden in the thickness of the decor. Finally, 3,250 points of enamel are positioned freehand on the anemone pistils, then cooked at 510°C overnight.

Lalique perfume bottlesPhoto courtesy of Lalique

Particularly complicated, detailed, extra-large or unique pieces are cast using the time-consuming and costly lost wax technique employed by René Lalique until 1930, which uses single-use plaster molds instead of cast-iron or steel molds. This technique is widely employed for Lalique’s artistic editions first introduced in 2011, which places the savoir-faire of its artisans at the service of contemporary artists and designers like Yves Klein, Rembrandt Bugatti, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Terry Rodgers and Zaha Hadid, who bring a new perspective to the brand. The latest has been designed by Arik Levy as a satinated totemic sculpture in amber, blue, green or clear crystal, echoing the artist’s monumental Rocks series, therefore ensuring that the age-old craft of crystal-making continues to stay relevant to this day.

Lalique’s latest artist edition by Arik Levy is a satinated totemic sculpture in amber, blue, green or clear crystal, echoing the artist’s monumental Rocks seriesPhoto courtesy of Arik Levy Studio & Lalique


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