Lalique are celebrating their 130th year – and so, to mark this marvellous occasion, we’re sharing an article from The Scented Letter, on the man himself.
René Lalique was far more than just a maker of fineries. He was an innovator, a maverick, a trendsetter. He also changed the way we see perfume today. So: read on to find out more about our visit to the epic Musée Lalique, below…
Carson Parkin-Fairley paid a visit to the Musée Lalique to check out the world’s greatest collection of the legendary glassmaker’s bottles and objets d’art
Lalique was not only a maker of fine crystal, a fabulous jewellery designer and an innovator within those industries. In his time, he so influenced the fragrance world that we would almost certainly not be sitting back and spritzing in the way we do, if it were not for René Lalique’s role in popularising perfume.
The very best way to marvel at his contribution to glassmaking and perfumery (and where the two meet) is to journey to Alsace, France, for a visit the Musée Lalique – as I did recently. The museum houses an exquisite collection of over 650 pieces – jewellery, drawings, vases, chandeliers, 230 antique perfume bottles and pretty much every other item of crystal finery one could fantasise about – all showcased in one resolutely modern structure. In the setting of the Alsatian town of Wingen-sur-Moder, where René Lalique set up his first glassworks in 1921, the Musée Lalique‘s aim is to show the extensive range and diversity of his work. And it succeeds brilliantly, following a timeline of Lalique’s career that will fascinate any perfume-lover and bottle collector.
Born in 1860 in Ay, in the Champagne region, René Lalique was a notably skilled young man from the word ‘go’. By the age of 16, he had already been awarded prizes for his drawings, later working for brands like Cartier and Boucheron, before setting up his own atelier at the age of just 25.
This was a man who sought to innovate in everything he did. He once recalled: ‘I would work tirelessly (…) with the will to achieve something new and create something that has never before been seen’. He was a true pioneer in the glass world, and later, the world of perfumery.
Widely regarded as the inventor of modern jewellery, Rene was audacious with his designs. These introduced elements like enamel, horn, ivory and later – which he would become famous for – glass, into a world of fine jewellery. Delighting in an item for its beauty, rather than for the luxury it exuded, Lalique often combined glass with gold or precious stones – with the feeling and beauty of an item taking precedence over materials.
It was his unrivalled talent with glass which eased Lalique’s path into the perfume world. In 1905 René opened a boutique at 24 Place Vendôme (the square which remains the heartland of Paris’s world of haute jouaillerie), where he exhibited his jewellery alongside other glass objects. In 1907, perfumer François Coty visited the atelier – and was so impressed by his works, he invited Lalique to collaborate.
Coty’s philosophy was simple. ‘Give a woman the best product you can make, present it in a perfect flacon with beautiful simplicity and impeccable taste, ask her to pay a reasonable price, and that will be the birth of a business such as the world has never seen.’ And boy, was he onto something.
That idea, however, was revolutionary. Before Lalique and Coty got together, perfume had been sold only in costly crystal flacons that were immensely expensive to produce, often far more pricy that the juice within. Fragrance was most definitely only for the wealthy, rather than for everyone. But Lalique found a way of producing affordable glass bottles, with just as much beauty and finesse as their expensive counterparts – transforming the perfume world. From that moment on he worked increasingly on designs for the fragrance industry, many of which can be seen at this museum – including the magnificent drawings for the first bottle Lalique ever created for Coty, alongside the finished flacon itself.
As so many of his designs for bottles and stoppers show, Lalique was a man who appreciated and celebrated nature, his main inspirations being flora, fauna and women. He developed a highly technical way of creating textures on glass: swirls, butterflies, insects, swallows and more. Observing these creations in a museum setting induces a kind of awe – like looking at a piece of history that for me, forever changed my perception of the industry I love and work in.
Flacons range from those for Le Baiser du Faune (created for Molinard, delicately depicting a woman and faun embracing), to Leurs Ames (created for fragrance house d’Orsay, the stopper of which is adorned in an ethereal image of women swinging from branches of a flowering tree). With a breathtaking collection of 230 beautifully illuminated perfume bottles – alongside many other items that so perfectly illustrate the man and the artist, including his designs for ocean-going liners and luxury trains – the Musée Lalique is a (crystal) window into his world, keeping the history and heritage of a remarkable man alive.
During my visit, I was lucky enough to visit the Lalique factory nearby to watch how the crystal is made – sadly not an opportunity extended to the general public. (Health & Safety strikes again…) But along with a small band of fellow writers, I gained an insight into why Lalique items come with such a hefty price tag.
We were shown around the factory by a man introduced as ‘Amen’, whose passion for his work shines through as clear as the crystal he has devoted his life to producing. Amen told us of the rigorous processes required to create these items of sheer perfection. The furnaces themselves are container-sized: vast, fiery, blasting out heat. Within these are placed smaller ovens-within-ovens: clay vessels which take three weeks to construct (and over a year to dry), housing up to 12 crystal moulds in each – for a statue, a vase, perhaps a centrepiece. These are filled with sand, lead and water to form the crystal, then placed within the furnaces. After just three months, the clay will have degraded, requiring these smaller ovens to be replaced.
Then there’s the challenge of staffing; trialling new workers is a lengthy process with serious vetting – because, as Amen observes, ‘It takes a long time to find someone who can basically create gold with their hands…’ The art of blowing glass can take five to 10 years to perfect, using artisan methods that have endured for hundreds of years. And as Amen explains, ‘It is impossible to make it fast. You have to go at the speed of the crystal.’ Today, Lalique employs many of the people of the town it’s situated in, passing the tradition of crystal-making down to the youth of today. (Hands are never idle: alongside their own bottles and limited edition flacons, Lalique create special designs for brands like Tom Ford, Nina Ricci and Bentley.)
For limited edition bottles (for instance, the gilded flacon for Living Lalique), resin moulds must be created – the final steps of which are always done by hand, taking up to six weeks to complete. (This is an industry where robots will never be able to compete with human skills.) A trial is done in wax, and finally, crystal; 50% of all glass produced will be disposed of for imperfections at this stage.
As I learned about the immense amount of work required, about the fact that a minimum of 20 people will have touched and worked on any piece that reaches the shelves, Lalique’s price tags suddenly didn’t seem so hefty. Whether you collect crystal or not, these these are things of beauty and perfection. Holding a vase or bottle, its journey suddenly seems very tangible. The hands that have held and sculpted it, the rigorous checks it will have been through, the love and care with which that item was made.
Artist, innovator, perfectionist, visionary. Visiting this museum, it’s clear why – over 72 years after his death – Lalique remains relevant in the perfume world. There’s surely no better place to experience Lalique‘s crystal creations in all their glory – and appreciate the finesse and precision that goes into them.
One word of warning: don’t blame me if you come away wanting to own one of their exquisite pieces yourself. You may have to mortgage your house for one –but at least you’ll understand why.
A visit to Musée Lalique is priced 6 euros per person; family tickets are available for for 14 euros (one or two adults and one to five children), and is free for those under 6 years old.
Musée Lalique, Rue du Hochberg, 67290 Wingen-sur-Moder (open 10am-6pm daily, except national holidays)
WHERE TO STAY
For those seeking opulent surroundings, the Villa René Lalique is nearby, surrounded by Alsatian forest and decadently furnished with Lalique items – from lamps to coffee tables. Even the hotel’s bath surrounds are adorned in crystal. A two Michelin-starred restaurant offers exciting gastronomic experiences, all outfitted with the finest Lalique crystal ware. (During dinner, our party heard a glass smash – and couldn’t help but wince a little.) Opposite the museum is the Chateau Hochberg – slightly less grand, but equally stylish, with 15 rooms and another fabulous restaurant.
Villa Rene Lalique – rooms for two cost from 350 to 1,300 euros per night villarenelalique.com
Chateau Hochberg – rooms for two cost from 140 to 320 euros per night chateauhochberg.com
CLOSER TO HOME
You don’t have to go all the way to Alsace to revel in the delicate treasures of Lalique. Head to their equally beautiful flagship store, in Conduit Street: a serene shop that sings of luxury, with incredibly knowledgeable staff. You’ll find the full range of Lalique fragrances (priced £59 to £230), including the exclusive Noir Premier Collection. Explore them at your leisure while surrounded by some of the most dazzling crystal the world has to offer. (The luxury limited edition fragrance flacons start at £1000.)
Lalique, 47 Conduit Street, London, W1S 2YP/020-7292 0444
Written by Carson Parkin-Fairley