Although Lalique initially trained as a jeweller he soon realised that glass was his first love. He became interested in glass through his friendship and association with Francois Coty, who produced some of the finest and most expensive perfume. Perfume was traditionally made from the best ingredients and could only be afforded by the very rich. As ingredients became less expensive it was difficult to justify the high prices and Coty turned to Lalique for help, who soon realised that in order to keep the produce exclusive they should work on the packaging and Lalique would design beautiful and extravagant glass perfume bottles.
Lalique bought his first factory in Combs le Ville in 1909 and started mass producing glass. He made scent bottles, drinking glasses, boxes and seals and from this moved on to tableware, lighting, vases and other items. He was so successful that in 1921 he opened a second factory in Wingen-sur-Moder in the Alsace. His most prolific period was during the 1920s and early 1930s and he produced exclusively for the rich. The great Paris exhibition of 1925 added further to his fame, he designed the exhibition’s main attraction – a huge illuminated fountain, which was impressive to behold. It was 50 feet high and had 17 graduated tiers which supported eight frosted and polished glass figurines known as Source de la Fontaine. He won further aclaim by getting the gold medal for the best piece of industrially produced glass in the exhibition for his ‘Whirlwinds’ vase which was made out of polished clear glass heightened with black enamel. If you were lucky to find one today it would cost between £25,000 and £30,000.
Lalique’s fame now spread throughout the world and, although he was capable of mass production he deliberately limited his output in order to keep the prices high. It worked! His international rich customers, those that had weathered the Wall Street Crash of 1929, loved his pieces and filled their houses with Lalique glass. As he also designed 29 car mascots they also adorned their luxury cars.
His designs were concentrated mainly on nature and the female form. Lalique’s women are gorgeous and range from nudes in a Baccanalian orgy to nymphs swathed in gossamer gowns. These are still sought after today, a ‘Bacchantes’ vase was sold a couple of years ago for £11,500 and a rare ‘Vitesse’ car mascot went for £14,000.
His most stunning designs were probably for the SS Normandie, launched in 1932. He created an amazing first class dining salon with an illuminated glass ceiling and side panels, as well as a dozen glass fountains. Unfortunately the SS Normandie was destroyed by a fire while anchored in New York in 1942. If you are a Lalique enthusiast and ever visit the island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, you should make your way to St Matthews at Millbrook. Lalique installed a massive glass cruciform moulded with lily flowers and a lady chapel guarded by angels. This was commissioned by Lady Trent in memory of her late husband, Jesse Boot. Everyone refers to it as ‘the glass church’, and people come from all over the world to see it.
Lalique died in 1945 at the age of 85 and the business was taken over by his son Marc and then by Marc’s daughter Marie-Claude. Collectors however are interested in Rene Lalique’s designs and they are much sought after. As already indicated they are expensive but some of the smaller pieces are worth collecting and affordable. A ‘Coquilles’ opalescent glass dish, which would have been made in large quantities in the 1920s and 1930s can be had for around £200 and a lovely pair of cufflinks ‘Masque de Femme’, designed by Lalique in 1935 would cost around £330. His gorgeous perfume bottles are probably far too expensive for most of us, I’ve never seen one for under £500 and they are quite often sold for several thousand pounds.
If you do have a large bank balance and want to become a collector you should do some research before you start. Remember to only buy from a reputable dealer who will always be willing to help and advise.