Around the turn of the 20th century, the French artist, jeweler and glassware artisan René Lalique spent hours studying Japanese plants in the botanical gardens of Paris. Japanese horticulture was in vogue all over Europe, and Lalique labored relentlessly to complete intricate sketches of unfamiliar plants such as hydrangeas and chrysanthemums. His aim: "To create something no one has ever seen before," he wrote.
Now visitors to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris can witness those wonders. "The Exceptional Jewels of Lalique, 1890-1912" (through July 29) is the largest-ever exhibition of the French master's work, gathering together some 300 pieces from around the world. Visitors are plunged into a magical universe of color and texture: orchids carved out of opal and jade; Japanese-style hair combs adorned with wasps and Egyptian beetles; bats and cats in lacquered enamel; dog collars embellished with pearls; the soft, fleshy female form metamorphosing into a dragonfly, or couched supine on a bed of moonstone.
As an innovator and leading light of the art nouveau and art deco movements, Lalique revolutionized design by breaking esthetic codes. He replaced gems with semiprecious stones to convey subtleties of color, and introduced enamel and glass to jewelry design. He created new motifs inspired by the symmetric forms of the Renaissance, the clean lines of Japanese design and the eclecticism of the Egyptian age. "Lalique's jewelry was like a breath of fresh air," says Catherine Vincent-Dolor, communications director at Société Lalique, the global luxury glassware brand that bears his name. "It told stories around the themes of women, flora and fauna."
The exhibit chronicles Lalique's spectacular ascent at the pinnacle of La Belle Epoque. He began as an assistant to the jewelry designers at the Palais-Royal, then won acclaim as "inventor of the modern jewel" at the Salon of the Society of French Artists in 1897. In 1909, he changed focus from jewelry to glass. His meeting with French perfumer François Coty led to a reinvention of perfume packaging and marketing. Lalique launched a line of intricate blown-glass perfume bottles, creating prized collector's items; often the glass vessel was more expensive than the scent inside. He applied for patents for his glass-molding techniques—a precursor to the development of his glassware factories in Combs-la-Ville and Alsace.
Lalique's patrons included celebrities as well as the European aristocracy. But above all, he created jewelry to adorn the women in his life. He drew inspiration from the beauty of his numerous lovers—particularly Alice Ledru, who became his wife, and whose profile he featured in many designs. "His work is a celebration of femininity," says Dany Sautot, independent curator and art-nouveau expert. "From his stones emerge the velvet touch of a petal and the sumptuous voluptuousness of a woman's skin." Lalique's most influential muse was the tempestuous actress Sarah Bernhardt. Though she was never his mistress, her rebellious character entranced Lalique, who created the Pendant de la Princess Lointaine for her, which she wore in a production of the eponymous play by Edmond Rostand in Paris in 1895. "The pendant characterizes the Lalique style," says Sautot. "The intricate technical details and the sense of perspective shows exquisite mastery of his craft." Incarnating the sensuality and finesse of his age, Lalique captivated the world with his novelties. Today he enthralls all over again.