The astounding success of Parisian goldsmith René Lalique was the result of a perfect storm of tragedienne, a rave for all things Japanese, and a world's fair. Lalique's luscious jewelry adorned the stage in Sarah Bernhardt's melodramatic roles of Théodora and Gismonde in the mid 1890's. In Paris Samuel Bing's new house of decoration, "La Maison de l'Art Nouveau," offered for sale both striking Lalique creations and Japanese decorative works of intense simplicity. The Exposition Universelle of 1900 displayed one of the most fantastic jewelry boutiques ever seen – Lalique's jewelry designs deeply influenced by Japanese interpretations of the natural world. It was the birth of Art Nouveau.
René Lalique was born in the countryside town of Ay, France, in 1860. His study of botany and a natural talent for drawing and painting deepened his interest in flowers and insects. Apprenticed to goldsmiths Henri Vuillert and Louis Aucoc in Paris, Lalique eventually studied jewelry design in London at the Sydenham School of Art and later in Paris at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs.
His work as a freelance designer was displayed for sale at various retailers. He established his own studio in 1895 and was finally free to experiment with sculpture, glass, and horn. This same year he exhibited his jewels under his own name at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français, the first year that decorative arts were considered worthy of competition. It was the first display of Lalique's famous "shock" tactic, and one incorporated in many of the jewels in this exhibition: the nude female form.1
Lalique's jewelry designs echoed the beauty of the natural world. He incorporated gold flora and fauna with precious stones and pearls. Using metal enameling techniques of cloisonné2 and plique à jour3 his creations reflected the atmosphere and season. Opals became water, diamonds reflected the undersides of leaves and insects were designed to roam hat and hair in large pins and combs. Lalique's creations were a rejection of the traditional pearl-encrusted bosoms of high society ladies. These new designs set their bearers free, spoke of boldness and eroticism. Embracing the female nude form Lalique created nymphs and sirens whose legs and arms entwined or spiraled against the sea green enamel of a pendant or brooch.
By 1900 Lalique's reputation was firmly established with his contributions to the development of modern jewelry paving the way for other jewelry artists like Georges Fouquet and Lucien Gaillard. The Exposition Universelle proved a perfect venue for Lalique and other artists to exhibit in the grand Palaces of Decorative Arts.
Vivienne Becker describes Lalique's display at the Exposition Universelle of 1900:
"Crowds flocked to see Lalique's work at the Exposition, to press their noses to his shop window, to gaze in amusement at the fantasy creatures and dream objects that were causing such a stir in Paris and all around the world. His display at the Exposition was eerie, erotic and eye catching. Black velvet bats swooped against a grey gauze, star-studded night sky. Below this, a semi-circular grille was formed by five patinated bronzed figures, each slightly different, each depicting a languorous nude female, stretching in sultry sleepiness, linked to one another by the spreading veins of feathered wings. Some jewels were pinned to the gauze stretched between the bronzes, others were spread below on frosted glass resting on white watered silk."4
This exotic display gained Lalique international fame and a flurry of orders. His showcase interior was unlike other displays on "neighboring stands." Refusing to echo tonal or traditional colors in decoration, Lalique had Georges Clairin paint the mural that decorated the interior of the shop utilizing light and natural colors.
It was Clairin who most likely introduced Lalique to Sarah Bernhardt in the mid-1890's. Lalique then began designing spectacular stage jewelry for Bernhardt, whose flair for the dramatic influenced his creative design for years.
It is believed that Lalique's friendship with Bernhardt introduced him to Calouste Gulbenkian, an art collector from Lisbon. Gulbenkian's enthusiasm for Lalique's talents became the chance of a lifetime for the artist. Calouste Gulbenkian's commissioning of 145 jeweled objects made him Lalique's major patron from 1895 until about 1912. Free of financial concern and able to design at will, Lalique entered the most creative period of his jewelry career. Gulbenkian's collection today is the biggest repository of Lalique's art.
1. Becker, Vivienne. The Jewellery of René Lalique. Exh. Cat. London: A Goldsmiths' Company Exhibition, 1987. p.17.
2. Cloisonné:[cell work] A metal (gold) enamel technique where the surface is decorated by soldering, edge-on metal fillets of flattened wire. These delicate cells are filled with coloured and powdered enamel, fired and then ground flat with carborundum, exposing the gold pattern beneath. Campbell, Gordon. The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 353-354.
3. Plique à jour: Enamel technique developed to display fully the 'stained glass' potential of translucent enamel. Ibid.
4. Becker. p. 15-16.