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The jewelry of René Lalique

June 1, 1987  |  By GEOFFREY C. MUNN; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, June 1987.

Even if the word genius was used as sparingly as it should be, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century jeweler René Lalique would always be so described. Rather than a craftsman with a leaning toward the artistic, he was an accomplished artist who chose to express himself primarily in jewelry.

The son of a merchant who dealt in pretty luxury goods called "articles de Paris," Lalique spent an uneventful childhood between school in Paris and holidays in the French countryside. It was undoubtedly there that he learned to see nature as a primary source of inspiration; and recording what he saw in the fields and streams was an easy task for a boy who, by the age of fifteen, was earning a steady income as a portrait miniaturist. His interests coincided perfectly with the revolution in the decorative arts known as art nouveau, which rejected eclecticism for a direct interpretation of the natural world. Europeans working in the style saw a parallel to their ideas in the large numbers of works of art being imported from Japan at the time. Lalique's jewelry shows a strong Japanese influence not only in its subject matter but also in the techniques he used to make it. Three-dimensional landscapes reminiscent of Japanese prints form dog collars or pendants, and opals or glass are used to suggest reflected light or water, snow or ice (Pl. X). As in Japanese netsuke, all manner of insects abound in Lalique's jewelry, and teeming wasps (Pl. 1) or predatory beetles are considered as worthy as the gentle butterfly or moth. Cherry blossoms and the flowers of the fragile wood anemone (Pl. IX) are found side by side with bean pods, dried teasels, and woody fir cones. The strident beauty of the peacock vies with the sinuous line of the snake; and even a moment of human passion is chosen as the subject of extraordinary jewels.

The Japanese facility with cloisonné enameling fascinated Parisian metalworkers at the close of the nineteenth century, but Lalique was even more taken with the technique known as plique-à-jour. As in cloisonné, the design was picked out in different colors delineated by small cells of wire, but the metal background onto which the enamel was applied was removed, either mechanically or by acid, allowing light to pass through, rather as it does through a stained-glass window. The technique lent itself perfectly to the representation of organic material such as a veined leaf or a dragonfly's wing (Pl. VIII), and Lalique used it precisely for this purpose.

Like Japanese craftsmen Lalique had a particular sympathy for relatively humble materials such as horn, bone, and ivory, which he used to great effect alongside gold and precious stones.

Second only to Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the jeweler's most influential patron was Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955), a poet, philosopher, humanist, scientist, and above all a businessman who did not flinch from exhibiting his 150 jewels by Lalique next to portraits by Rembrandt. The examples illustrated here are among the 235 (47 from the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon) on view until July 24 at Goldsmiths' Hall, London, in an exhibition entitled The Jewellery of René Lalique, sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland. It is the largest exhibition of its kind since Lalique's time.

Geoffrey C. Munn is a director of the London firm Wartski, which specializes in the work of Peter Carl Fabergé.

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