Having already attained the accolade and recognition for being France’s premier jeweller, by 1905 Rene Lalique had begun to focus his attention to the possibilities of commercial art glass. Additional impetus came in 1907 after being approached by Francois Coty, the celebrated parfumier, and his neighbour in the fashionable Place Vendome. Coty asked Lalique to design the embossed gilt paper labels for various perfumes, whereupon legend has it that Lalique took umbrage and only agreed on the strict understanding that he was also commissioned to design the actual glass bottles. In agreeing to this demand Coty could hardly imagine how this would send his business into a veritable overdrive, such was the response and increase in demand for those perfumes retailed in bottles designed by Lalique.
At this time such bottles were manufactured by Legras et Cie as Lalique did not then have the sizeable glassworks needed for mass production, although Coty had also used the services of the Baccarat factory in previous years. The dramatic success of this venture resulted in a growing procession of recognised perfume companies approaching Lalique in the quest of emulating their competitor’s success. Such pre war commissions came from household names such as Roger et Gallet, Worth, D’Orsay, Arys and Rosine amongst others. Today these early bottles are keenly sought after by collectors as they manage to encapsulate their designer’s uncanny ability of transforming a utilitarian object into a desirable work of art. Such vessels allowed him to develop designs that borrowed from nature whilst making great play of both the mystical and magical elements readily evident in such Coty commissions as ‘Cyclamen’ and L’Effleurt de Coty (The caress of Coty), with the former later reworked with two additional forms of button stopper.
Lalique soon recognised that the demand for stylish perfume bottles was big enough for his own ‘Maison Lalique’ creations that were available for the purchaser to then fill with an essence of their own liking. The combined ranges became so extensive that many collectors are content to restrict their collections to just perfume bottles. Initially he had made use of a small glass furnace located on his country estate at Clairfontaine on the outskirts of Paris, but the increase in demand dictated that he should acquire a larger facility. In 1909 he purchased a much larger concern at Combs la Ville that allowed for greater mass production with an estimated workforce of about 50-100 craftsmen and where output continued until closure until 1937.
However it was the setting up in 1921 of the present day glassworks in Wingen sur Moder near to Strasbourg in the Alsace region of eastern France that allowed production on a truly grand scale, this time with a workforce that exceeded 500. Rene Lalique might be recognised as a designer who invariably thought ‘out of the box’ and one who recognised the almost limitless possibilities offered by such an elastic medium. In years gone by he has, on the odd occasion, suffered the indignation of having his creations labelled as nothing more than moulded glass. Fortunately, with the passage of time, collectors and design historians alike give a secondary consideration to the method of production and now place primary importance on both design and effect. Lalique was to show himself to be the absolute master of exploring the potential of glass whilst ready to embrace the growing technology and chemical science that allowed him to invariably remain several steps ahead of any would-be competition.
The publication in 1932 of his illustrated trade catalogue, reprinted in recent years and an essential for collectors and enthusiasts, manages to give some indication of the sheer variety available to the discerning public of those interwar years. Within the pages, alongside the perfume bottles, can be found boxes, sculptures, paperweights, car mascots, clocks, lighting and all manner of tableware, dishes, bowls, architectural fittings and even glass jewellery. Perhaps the most readily available and affordable, depending on size and colour, are his vases, bowls and dishes, which are amongst the majority of his wares that tend to surface in many of today’s auctions. Desirability here is also decided by rarity and the all important condition of a piece. Having no wish to scaremonger it is worth pointing out that the present day market place has its fair share of repaired or doctored pieces. Consequently it is always prudent to purchase from a respected dealer or auction house.
As a broad generalisation, unless considered a rare design, simple clear and frosted glass examples tend to be the least desirable. The addition of coloured staining or ‘patine’ helps to accentuate the definition of a design and adds both to the attraction and value. Again, another word of caution, as some pieces have been subjected to modern day staining. In order to determine old from new it is essential to build up an understanding of the original staining used as well as be aware that such early stains were liable to wear, whereas the modern colours have so far proved permanent. Opalescent glass, i.e. the inclusion of an internal milky blue effect that is invariably synonymous with Lalique glass, is more desirable, with value often enhanced by the intensity of the internal colouration.
The overall effect is determined by the thickness of the glass that plays host to a chemical reaction that occurs during the cooling process. Lalique is known to have preferred the use of a demi-cristal which incorporated half the usual 24% of lead oxide used by makers of lead crystal such as St Louis and Baccarat. Demi-cristal offered a less white and softer grey hue to the metal – glass is actually a super cooled liquid but technically referred to as a ‘metal’. It also allowed for greater definition when using expensive steel moulds and was relatively lighter than lead crystal.
The milky blue effect was all down to incorporating a tiny amount of cobalt oxide into the glass mix plus two specific fluorites that acted as opacifying agents. When heated, the fluorites prompted a chemical reaction that caused the internal colouration that refracts a blue, white and near yellow, pink thus emulating the qualities of an opal. The intensity of the effect is governed by the time allowed for the glass to cool. Consequently the thicker the glass the more time is needed for it to cool and therefore the stronger the colouration, whereas the thinner areas show far less effect. The most desirable examples are those produced using both semi transparent and opaque coloured glass. The former made use of an entire spectrum of colours with the rarest offered in an intense cherry red or a vibrant electric blue.
Opaque examples were sometimes a solid colour such as a green, favoured on designs that sought to emulate succulent plants, or a jet black that in actual fact is actually composed of an incredibly dense dark purple. An alternative was to use cased glass whereby opalescent glass was overlaid or encased by one or two layers of semi translucent glass with a polished circular top rim offering a Rings of Saturn appearance. As mentioned, the vast majority of Lalique’s varied yet carefully controlled output was made using steel moulds into which the glass was either blown or plunged – the numbers made would have been monitored in order to avoid overproduction and maintain exclusivity. Unfortunately at present no record of production numbers appear to have survived.
There is however another group of wares recognised for their total exclusivity that made use of the ancient technique known by the French as ‘Cire Perdue’ or ‘Lost Wax’ process. This involved hand modelling a vessel or figure in wax and then supporting it in a case into which is poured liquid fireclay slip that covers the object and allowed to set hard. The next step is to bore a hole into both the top and base and into the encased wax model, after which the mould is heated to a temperature that results in all the wax melting and leaving an internal hollow impression. Once the base hole has been plugged, molten glass is poured into the void until filled and finally subject to a controlled and lengthy cooling or ‘annealing’ process. Once complete, access to the internal glass model can only be accessed by carefully removing the surrounding fireclay mould. The process therefore ensures that each and every object retrieved is totally unique. As a result Cire Perdue glass is considered the ultimate prize amongst collectors and consequently can command prices that are measured in many thousands of pounds.
As a veteran of more than thirty years working on BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow, I have been fortunate in handling many fine pieces of Lalique glass brought along by the great British public. They say that patience is a virtue and I have always lived in hope that such an example might one day appear but I never thought it might take the better part of twenty eight years to surface. The scene is Dumfries House, that incidentally is nowhere near Dumfries but actually nearer to Ayr, the time about 4pm and the crowds had all but disappeared after a day of on and off rain. Yours truly has been left to hold the fort, such is the ceramics and glass table, whilst my comrades in arms have gone in search of anything warm to imbibe.
Enter a lady and gentleman, she swinging a plastic carrier bag out of which she produced a somewhat unassuming small frosted glass vase of shouldered form moulded with two small handles in the shape of unfurling ferns heightened with charcoal staining. When questioned the lady informed me that she had retrieved the vase from her loft and that she had bought it at a car boot a few years ago together with a plant and all for the princely sum of one pound. She was also at great pains to add that it was the plant that cost one pound and the glass vase was thrown as part of the deal. She actually apologised being convinced that she was ‘probably wasting yus time.’ It was then down to me to explain that she and her husband were the not so proud owners of a Lalique Cire Perdue vase with a potential auction value in the region of £25,000. Unbeknown to me, the couple decided to sell the vase at Christies auction house in London where it eventually sold for £26,000 plus buyers’ premium.
Well you can’t always get it bang on the nail!
From an article by Eric Knowles, originally published in ARC Magazine.