Born in 1860, René Lalique was an extremely talented and prolific designer who enjoyed great commercial success during his lifetime. He continues to be popular with collectors today. He began his career as a jewellery designer before transitioning to glass in the early 20th century. At first he operated out of a small atelier producing perfume bottles for retailers and perfumiers such as Coty and Guerlain before opening the first Lalique factory in 1913 in Combs-La-Ville (a suburb of Paris). Here his striking designs were turned into glass vases, car mascots, decorative objects and homewares, sculptures, lighting, perfume bottles and more. Soon clients were vying for his elegant pieces.
Further success came when Lalique was asked to make a monumental glass fountain for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, where the term ‘Art Deco’ was first coined. Today, Lalique’s designs continue to be synonymous with quality and luxury and pieces from all eras remain highly collectable.
Lalique’s work reflects the elegant Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles that flourished in France at the turn of the century, moving smoothly from the sinuous and organic lines of the former to the more geometric style of the latter. Some of his most fascinating pieces are those from the 1920s where these two styles jostle for dominance.
Lalique is perhaps best known for the range of finishes he applied to his glass, including polishing, enamelling and frosting which was a particularly successful way of adding depth and emphasis to his designs. This is similar to the way an artist would use graphite for shading. Though he was not the inventor of the technique he made the most creative use of opalescence within his designs. This involves mixing or injecting a chemical concoction (including arsenic) into the glass, then cooling and heating the glass repeatedly until the area becomes opalescent. René Lalique’s opalescent glass designs are more expensive to collect than his clear pieces, as production stopped following his death in 1945.
Lalique was a true industrialist designer, embracing the use of moulds and contemporary manufacturing processes as well as traditional techniques, in order to reach the highest quality of finish. Many rival glassmakers tried to imitate his designs but with little success. His process involved making a mould of his design and then pouring molten glass into it and letting it cool. Sometimes the vessel would be handblown and then decorated with moulded elements.
The production of coloured glass required another layer and made the process more complicated, which explains the smaller quantities of these designs and their consequent higher estimates at auction. The most labour intensive technique, however, was the cire perdu (lost wax) method which requires the mould to be broken in order to remove the finished piece. As a result, each piece was unique, and there are very few of them on the market.
After René Lalique’s death the company was taken over by his son Marc and the composition of the glass was changed and renamed ‘Lalique Cristal’. Still in use now, it has a lower lead content and a noticeably different aesthetic. The clarity of the glass is heightened but the pieces have a heavier weight to them. The difference is perhaps most noticeable on the Bacchantes vase, which was originally produced during Lalique’s lifetime and continues to be made today.
Since the 1970s there has been a strong following for Lalique around the world as collectors continue to admire the luxury and glamour of his designs. The enduring popularity of the brand is also in part due to the range of designs on the market. This ranges from plates to clocks, boxes to cendriers, vases to mirrors, statuettes to cocktail stirrers. Car collectors and perfume enthusiasts alike can find something to love in Lalique’s vast back catalogue. Those who are new to collecting in this category are advised to begin with the designer’s glass jewellery
, produced in striking Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles and starting at affordable estimates.
Most collectors are in search of early pieces by Lalique, covering the period from the 1920s through to the outbreak of the Second World War when René Lalique himself was the director and his hand can be seen in the design, composition and finish of each object. Values can range from £250 for a 1920s ‘Pavots D’Argent’ perfume bottle for French parfumier Roger & Gallet to £1.59million for the Moineaux-decorated set of double doors from Villa Millbrook, the Jersey home of Lady Trent; it all depends on the date, condition and rarity of the piece.
Many of the most popular and technically simple designs were produced in large quantities while the more challenging pieces are less common, such as those with multiple processes and finishes.
Before buying a piece of Lalique, collectors should always ask themselves how much they like it, rather than what value it may hold as an investment. If possible it’s best to view the object in person, particularly if it is an unfamiliar design, as it can be hard to capture every nuance of the style and surface from images alone. Once you are ready to buy, it is important to ask for a condition report which is essential for determining if a piece has been damaged or restored, factors that will greatly affect its value.
Provenance is also another thing to consider; unfortunately there are some fakes on the market but you can avoid these by buying from a trusted auction house or dealer. On occasion a post-war piece will have its signature rubbed off and replaced with another one in order to be passed off as an earlier example. This is why it is so important to consult a specialist who will guide you through each step of the buying process.
While designed to be sturdy, pre-war pieces should be considered for display only and kept out of harm’s way. Contemporary Lalique homewares, however, are more easily replaced as they are still produced today, though retail prices can be as high as the auction prices for antique pieces. With any glass it is important to consider the temperature of the environment if you wish to keep a piece in optimum condition - a constant climate is best. If a piece does get damaged it can usually be repaired but unfortunately this will not restore any of the value lost by the damage, and will only be important for the look of a piece.