Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian

René Lalique

Eric Knowles throws some light on the genius of glass maker, René Lalique, whose work is much valued by collectors today.

Excellence of design will always stand the test of time, which is unquestionably why the glass creations of René Lalique continue to dazzle and enthrall an international following of collectors and admirers. What I have always found to be truly exciting is the sheer brilliance of his fertile imagination. It is made manifest in the vast output of quite literally several million pieces of glassware ranging in size from a humble hat pin to a colossal 40ft high fountain. The latter was illuminated and proved to be the focal point of the 1925 Paris Exhibition des Arts Decoratifs, from whence the term Art Deco is supposedly derived. Lalique's fascination with both the properties and possibilities of glass began in the 1890s at a time when he was being feted as the master jeweller of France. In an age where mainstream jewellery served primarily to display the wealth of its wearer or, if not the actual wearer, then the wealth of a devoted admirer, (this was after all the 'Naughty Nineties'). Lalique proved to be something of a maverick. Whereas the traditional approach to jewellery design favoured mounts that held as many precious stones as the design might permit and facilitated both display and statement, Lalique preferred an altogether different approach. In stark contrast to competitors such as Boucheron and Cartier, Lalique's emphasis was towards sculptural elements incorporating both precious and non-precious materials including glass. At the onset of the new century he had begun to tire of his jewellery empire, and with the death of Emile Galle in 1904, France looked for a suitable candidate to take up the situation left vacant by the master glass maker. Lalique was to fill the position for the next four decades until his death at the age of 85 in 1945.

The impetus for making the giant leap from master jeweller to master glass maker might be credited to Lalique's neighbour in Paris's fashionable Place Vendome: his name was Francis Coty. It was Coty who in about 1907 asked Lalique for his services to design a series of embossed and gilt paper labels for his range of perfumes. Now it must be remembered that it had been the standard practice for generations to purchase perfume in simple bottles or flasks and upon returning home to then decant it into your personal perfume bottle. Lalique, however, was to take Coty's brief one step further. He not only designed the labels, but provided designs for the bottles to receive them.

Coty liked what he saw and production commenced. The result saw the demand for Coty's perfumes skyrocket. This marketing success was not lost on the competition who soon came knocking on Lalique's door. In quick time Lalique's talents helped to benefit the fortunes of most of the top French perfume houses including: Worth, Molinard, Lucien Lelong, Roger and Gallet, to name but a few. The first bottles, although designed by Lalique, had been made by the Legras glassworks. Lalique promptly acquired his own production facilities, firstly at Clairfontaine and then in 1909 at Combs-la-Ville near Fontainbleau. Shortly after the first world war production was concentrated at a new factory set up in Alsace at Wingen-sur-Moder, which continues as the modern day company's production centre.

The success of Lalique's many perfume bottle designs was to provide the springboard for all manner of wares. His 1932 Trade Catalogue, which has since been reprinted and is a must for all collectors, illustrates an amazing and diverse range of products that includes perfume bottles, vases, bowls, plates, car mascots, jewellery, dressing table sets, decanters, drinking glasses, mirrors, statuettes, chandeliers and all manner of decorative lighting fixtures.

All of Lalique's glass creations were produced using steel moulds and finished by hand. There were, however, a few hundred or so exceptions modelled by Lalique himself using the cire perdue or 'lost wax' process. This is a technique where the object is firstly modelled in wax before being encased in a plaster mould. The procedure eventually necessitates the careful fracturing of the mould in order to retrieve the glass object within. Examples are rare and expensive and thought to be the only pieces signed and dated by Lalique himself.

The collectors market for Lalique glass began to take shape in parallel with the demand for Art Deco objects during the early 1970s. Within a decade his repertoire could be seen gracing the catalogues of the premier auction houses of London, Paris and New York. The late 1980s saw prices spiral, fuelled by a strong interest from Japanese dealers, collectors and museums. However, by the early 1990s the market caught a cold when the Japanese economy began to falter. Prices actually began to recede to levels that came close to those of almost a decade earlier. It proved to be quite an expensive lesson for many of the newer collectors, and still serves as a reminder that prices can and often do fall in the art game, as well as rise.

The good news is that the present market place is proving to be relatively stable, and has been for the last three or four years.

Other pitfalls worth pointing out are repairs and alterations, which can greatly affect the value of a piece. On top of that, beware of re-staining / re-polishing, fine cracks in joints and fake packaging, oh and watch out for resigned pieces. Still interested?

The fact that the post-war factory of Cristal Lalique continued to produce from pre-war moulds can also add to the confusion. It then becomes essential to recognise the difference in colour of the pre-war demi-cristal of grey hue, from the whiter full cristal post-war output.

The Lalique factories marked their wares using several different techniques that include engraved script, angular wheel cutting intaglio, relief moulding and acid cut stencilling. The accepted rule of thumb is that those items produced during Lalique's lifetime should always include the initial R, which was removed on post-1945 productions. Exceptions, however, do exist but only where the initial was integrated into the design and appears in moulded form.

In conclusion, despite the fact I have been handling Lalique's glass for the better part of 30 years I still find that his work continues to inspire and excite. So if you also seek excitement and inspiration look no further than the glass of René Lalique.

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