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Crystal Revelations

Samantha Brooks

René Lalique crafted some of the finest examples of glass sculpture ever made. But for the artist, his most memorable creation probably was his first.

In 1895, after working more than a decade for a company that designed jewelry for Boucheron, Cartier, and other elite brands, Lalique, at age 35, opened his own shop in Paris. By then, he had become frustrated by the limitations of designing with such materials as tortoiseshell and ivory, and so he was experimenting with other types of shells, metals, and wood until he thought to try working with glass—at home, in the kitchen of his Paris apartment.

He fired up his stove and began melting glass in a pan, intent on creating a small, teardrop-shaped bottle by pouring the liquefied glass into a mold he had formed. He succeeded in making the bottle, but in the process the mold caught fire, and the kitchen became engulfed in flames. As his landlord rushed in to put out the fire, Lalique grabbed the glass bottle and escaped unharmed. The bottle was saved; much of the apartment was not.

The bottle, which depicts fish swimming, became a sort of good luck charm for Lalique. He kept it close at hand until 1925, when he loaned it to the Louvre. The museum held it until Lalique’s death, in 1945, when his son, Marc, took possession of it. From Marc, the glass passed to at least three collectors before it was purchased by Silvio Denz, who had amassed the world’s largest collection of Lalique items—some 608 pieces—before acquiring a controlling interest in the company in 2008. Denz is the majority shareholder and president of Art & Fragrance, the parent company of Lalique.

"I first started acquiring Lalique perfume bottles about 20 years ago," says Denz, who has the bulk of his collection of Lalique perfume bottles displayed in a location near Zurich. "I owned a perfume company [Alrodo, which once had the largest chain of perfume stores in Switzerland] and had a personal interest in his early perfume bottles. After I sold the company in 2000 [to Marionnaud Parfumerie], I wasn’t ready to retire and looked to buy a brand that would have personal value to me."

Denz acquired Lalique as the company was approaching a landmark. This year marks the 150th anniversary of René Lalique’s birth, and the company is celebrating the event in an array of ways that include releasing new limited-edition pieces and conducting charity auctions of one-of-a-kind items. The French government is also funding a Lalique museum that will open next spring in Wingen-sur-Moder, in Alsace-Lorraine, near the company’s factory. The museum opening will represent the culmination of a decade-long project.

René lalique did not establish his first factory—in Combs-la-Ville, near Paris—until several years after he burned down his apartment (for which he was subsequently evicted). First he opened a studio in Paris, which is now a landmark, designing every aspect of the facility, including the sculpted glass door. He began working with glass not only because it gave him greater creative flexibility than did other materials, but also because it was an abundant and inexpensive material that would allow his designs to be available to patrons outside of the luxury class—an ironic objective considering how valuable those pieces he created in the early years have become.

His work soon caught the eye of perfumer François Coty, who commissioned Lalique to design his perfume bottles. Lalique’s success in that venture enabled him to open the workshop in Combs-la-Ville, and then a larger factory in Wingen-sur-Moder, which is where the company now makes all of its crystal. With the new factory, Lalique was able to branch out and begin creating bowls, vases, statuettes, and jewelry, all of which were distinguished by their contrasting clear and satin-finished glass.

When Marc Lalique assumed control of the company in 1945, after René’s death, he showed his disdain for his father and his frustration with living in the elder’s shadow by destroying many of René’s designs. Marc wanted to start afresh, with his own motifs. Fortunately, Marc’s daughter, Marie-Claude, had the foresight to save most of what her father attempted to destroy, and when she took over the company in 1977, following Marc’s death, she initiated production of René Lalique’s earlier designs, as well as the production of some of her own designs.

Under Marc’s direction, the company may have ceased nearly all manufacturing of perfume bottles and in other ways tried to sever its ties to its founder, but it was Marc Lalique—not René—who commenced the company’s production of pieces made of crystal, the type of items for which Lalique is now most renowned.

several factors are involved in the creation of fine crystal, including the quality of the minerals in the crystal, the artistry of the mold, and the flawlessness of the final creation. At its Wingen-sur-Moder factory, which employs more than 200 people, Lalique produces about 2,000 different designs and 300,000 pieces of crystal per year, each of which undergoes the company’s intricate manufacturing process.

Once workers create the crystal mineral mixture and melt it in a large clay pot heated to about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, they pour the crystal into a heat-injected mold, cutting out any flaws or bubbles in the process. The edges are then refined, and the piece is dried and cooled for seven hours to six days, depending on its size and thickness. After the item has cooled, the quality-control department inspects it for flaws. Of the clear crystal pieces, about 60 percent are deemed flawless; the rest are destroyed. Once a piece passes inspection it continues on to the final steps, where it is engraved, polished in acid, frosted, polished by hand, and sent for a final quality-control inspection. At that point, 95 percent of the pieces are approved to be signed and sold through Lalique.

In addition to the quality of its materials and designs, Lalique is known for its double-injection crystal, a single piece of crystal that can display one or several colors. Marc Lalique created the technique for producing this type of crystal, which today is exclusive to Lalique, in the early 1970s. Lalique is also one of the few crystal makers that offer such a wide range of colors, 40 in all.

Last year, in anticipation of René Lalique’s 150th birthday, the company set up a new workshop in its factory to revive the lost-wax method that its founder employed until 1930, when the arthritis in his hands forced him to abandon the technique. (Lalique was using this process when he set fire to his apartment.) It involves sculpting a design from a wax block and then covering it in plaster and baking it until the wax melts away. This forms a mold into which a craftsman can pour molten crystal, or in René Lalique’s case, glass. Because it takes 10 to 17 days (depending on the size of the piece) to produce a single piece using this method, and because each mold can be used just once, Lalique currently offers only eight lost-wax designs, one of the most elaborate of which is a black crystal bull. It is priced at $69,500, and its production is limited to 49 pieces.

the bull is among several remarkable pieces Lalique is offering to commemorate its founder. The Hommage à René Lalique Collection draws upon the three main themes—femmes, flora, and fauna—that consistently appeared in his designs, whether they were for jewelry, perfume bottles, or vases. The 21-piece collection includes some of Lalique’s designs from 1912 to 1943 and four new pieces based on his past designs.

One of those new items is the Révélations Bacchantes vase, which is a deviation from Lalique’s original Bacchantes vase that has been a best seller since 1927. It is made from satin-finished crystal using the lost-wax method and features a depiction of young priestesses of Bacchus. Production of the vase is limited to 99 pieces (priced at $90,000 apiece). Another new item is the Perruches vase, a limited edition of 49 pieces ($55,000 apiece) that is modeled after a plaster fragment featuring a parakeet motif that was found in René Lalique’s old workshop. The Beauvais vase ($2,995), a particularly ornate piece, was originally designed in 1931 in glass but has been re-created in crystal and requires the work of 10 glassmakers to complete. Additional pieces include bowls, a paperweight, a decanter, and a clock. They range in price from $225 to $7,500.

Lalique also has created two one-of-a-kind pieces: a serpent necklace and a Macallan decanter. Serpents appeared frequently in René Lalique’s designs, and this one is made of white gold, is encrusted with 800 miniature diamonds, and has two emeralds for eyes. It will be offered online at the Lalique Haute Joaillerie website (www.lalique-hautejoaillerie.com) at the end of November. The necklace is based on a design Lalique sketched but never completed at the turn of the last century. It commemorates his earlier career as a jewelry designer, when he created pieces for that era’s top celebrities and businessmen (to give to their wives). To complement the necklace, the company also has created a serpent-design perfume bottle, which is priced at $18,000 and limited to 12 examples.

The other one-of-a-kind piece, the Macallan decanter called Cire Perdue (French for "lost wax"), also will be auctioned (see "They’ll Drink to This,"). Lalique created the decanter in collaboration with the Macallan distillery, which will fill the vessel with 1.5 liters of the Macallan 64 Years Old, the most aged whisky that the 186-year-old distillery has ever released. The decanter takes its shape from one designed in the 1820s—the same decade when the Macallan distillery was founded—and features a detailed panorama of the Macallan estate in northeast Scotland, with woodlands, fields of barley, the River Spey, Telford’s bridge, and the Macallan’s Easter Elchies House. Sotheby’s will conduct the decanter auction November 15 in New York. Lalique will donate all of the proceeds to Charity: Water, which provides clean drinking water to people in developing countries.

"With this project [the Macallan decanter], we’re going back to René Lalique’s original techniques of the lost-wax method, to remind people of how intricate and detailed his early work is," says Denz. "It isn’t something we’re doing for a profit. It’s really an homage to our company’s founder for his landmark birthday."

the final event celebrating René Lalique’s birthday will not take place until spring 2011, when the Musée Lalique opens near the Wingen-sur-Moder factory in Alsace-Lorraine. Designed by Parisian architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the museum will house more than 1,000 pieces of Lalique’s glass works, newer crystal creations, drawings, and molds. Denz plans to display nearly 500 pieces from his own collection. "The museum was already under way when I purchased Lalique, so they ended up reworking it a bit to accommodate my collection," says Denz. "I’m very excited about having such an amazing dedicated spot to showcase these pieces and share them with other collectors and admirers."

The bulk of Denz’s collection consists of Lalique perfume bottles that he acquired primarily from various auctions, private sales, and three other major collectors. In 1998, he purchased 50 pieces at a New York auction from the collection of Glenn and Mary Lou Utt. His second major purchase, in 2004, consisted of nearly 300 pieces from the David Weinstein collection, and it included René Lalique’s first lost-wax bottle, the one that cost him his apartment. Another major acquisition, in 2005, comprised about 30 pieces from Marie-Claude Lalique’s collection. It includes a number of prototypes that never went into production.

Standouts from Denz’s collection that will be displayed at the new museum include a series of tiara-style bottles designed for Coty and other perfumers, a makeup compact made from horn that is so delicate and detailed it recalls a piece of jewelry, and a tiny yet detailed perfume bottle from 1925, which Denz and other collectors did not know existed until it showed up at an auction in Geneva a few years ago. "We think it was an experimental bottle, maybe for himself [René Lalique] or a perfume company," says Denz. "We found designs for it in his records that show that it was one in a series of three, but we don’t know if the other two exist. It’s the kind of thing a collector is really into because no one had seen it before and there’s a lot of mystery around it."

Although Lalique’s most popular items now are its crystal vases, sculptures, and other decorative items, it continues to make perfume bottles, thanks to Marie-Claude Lalique, who revived the craft at the company in 1994. Every year since then, Lalique has released a different limited-edition bottle—always 1,000 examples—containing a women’s fragrance. The 2010 bottle has a cap that resembles a fountain and was inspired by a fish table from one of René Lalique’s early designs. Next year’s perfume bottle will be shaped like a crystal ball. It will display a red butterfly motif and will be topped with a tiara cap.

Denz’s interest in Lalique’s heritage obviously is a driving force behind the company’s return to complex methods of production and its release of limited-edition and one-of-a-kind pieces. Although he also owns vineyards in Spain, France, and Italy; is a partner in two Zurich-based wine-trading houses; and has a real estate business in London, Denz’s leadership role with Lalique is clearly his passion project. "One of the most remarkable things about seeing the pieces, especially the oldest ones, in my collection up close is how well taken care of they have been over the years," says Denz. "Even early on, when the pieces weren’t as collectible as they are today, people could see the value in their craftsmanship and really cherished them with the intent of holding on to them. I look at the company of Lalique in the same way. I’m treating it as an investment that I want to hold on to for years to come."

Lalique, 800.274.7825, www.cristallalique.fr

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