An Interview with Quentin Obadia of Lalique
René Lalique may be better known today as the man who revolutionized the perfume industry with Rene Coty at the start of the 20th century, designing beautiful glass bottles that made packaging an important marketing tool. He might also be remembered as a leading Art Deco designer who used glass to great effect in interior decor in the 1920s, creating lighting, countless prized vases, and other fittings. However, his earliest success at the start of his career came as a jewelry designer. Working on Place Vendôme, first as a freelancer for other established jewelers such as Boucheron and Vever, and then as a designer in his own right, Lalique dazzled Paris, and the wider world, with his daring stand at the 1900 world fair, l’Exposition Universelle, when he made the bold move to display his jewels through a balustrade of eleven ‘Femme Ailees’ bronzes, female nude sculptures with stylized wings — one of which sold for $2.2 million at Sotheby’s last year.
His Art Nouveau jewelry creations, inspired by a love of female forms and nature, eschewed the traditional use of precious stones and instead mixed semi-precious gems with unusual materials like enamel, ivory, and horn, which prompted the art historian Henri Clouzot to state in 1933 that Lalique had been the “inventor of modern jewelry,” even though the designer had more or less abandoned jewelry design around 1908‑09 to concentrate on his glass creations.
A little over 100 years later, in 2012, the company he founded re-launched a fine jewelry line now under the helm of young designer Quentin Obadia, and when it came down to opening the first dedicated jewelry boutique, it chose 20 Rue de la Paix in Paris, just a stone’s throw from the original Lalique boutique at 24 Place Vendôme, to underscore the long historic heritage.
“Our idea was to source a location for our first jewelry boutique which made sense, somewhere which was symbolic for Lalique jewelry and its roots, an address which would naturally stir emotions. Place Vendôme along with Rue de la Paix is an area of Paris which inspires clients from all over the world to dream about luxury and fine jewels,” Lalique CEO Silvio Denz says, adding that he patiently waited for the perfect address to become available, “purely because the turnover of properties on Rue de la Paix is very slow.”
“René Lalique has an important place in the history of jewelry making; he was truly an innovator, and when we got offered this opportunity, it’s not something we could say no to,” recalls Obadia, who left Boucheron to join Lalique in 2011 in order to prepare the re-launch of the brand with Anne Kazuro,another ex-Boucheron employee and now Lalique’s International Director of Jewelry. “We were really attracted by the opportunity of having a white page to re-launch Lalique as a jewelry brand,” explains Kazuro.
Obadia recalls seeing some of René Lalique’s jewelry designs in Boucheron’s archives for the first time. “I remember very well seeing a drawing for three swallows that fly off together, which is a sketch of infinite beauty. It’s more of a very fine hint but you immediately understand the notion of flight, and his idea of volume. I remember immediately wondering, who is this guy?… So even at Boucheron, Lalique already inspired me,” Obadia says.
“He was really a master. He broke the codes of haute joaillerie, mixing materials, which was quite audacious at the time,” the designer adds.
According to Jean Ghika, Director of the Jewelry Department at Bonhams in Europe, René Lalique’s major strength was his originality: “His skill as a true artist can be seen in his use of color and texture to suit his subject matter, creating a degree of naturalism previously unseen. This is particularly evident in the technique of plique-a-jour enamel, which creates a translucent layer of color which is left open-backed to act almost like a membrane between the metal. What better technique to demonstrate the fragility of a dragonfly or the iridescence of an insect’s wing!”
She adds, “He stepped away from the formality of the Belle Époque period and in doing so provides us with a unique insight into the changing world of fin de siècle Paris … He is the undisputed leader of the Art Nouveau jewelry movement.”
Lalique’s original jewelry pieces are extremely desirable and highly sought-after at auction. The largest private collection of Lalique’s jewels was assembled at the time of their creations by the Armenian banker Calouste Gulbenkian (1869‑1955), who bought about 145 pieces from the designer between 1895‑1912. Housed in the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, this collection includes one of Lalique’s most famous and spectacular pieces of jewelry, the ‘dragonfly-woman’ brooch, the hybrid figure of female bust in chrysoprase emerging from the mouth of a gold and enamel dragonfly with unexpected griffin claws.
Today, René Lalique jewels continue to attract great interest from specialized collectors — many of whom are in Japan— fascinated by the delicate and poetic qualities of his pieces, says François Curiel, Christie's Asia president. As his jewelry pieces are rather rare, they can often fetch high pieces. A glass, enamel, and pearl "Medusa" brooch, circa 1910, from Elizabeth Taylor’s estate, fetched $566,000 at Christie’s, New York in 2011, with the provenance playing an important factor in this result, Curiel notes, though another multi-gem and enamel pendant, dated 1895, depicting Sarah Bernhardt as Mélissande in La Princesse Lointaine written by French author Edmond Rostand was sold for $555,000 in 2009, also in New York.
For Curiel, Lalique was the archetypal Art Nouveau jeweller, creating innovative and delicate pieces, heavily inspired by nature and symbolism. “These themes are now being successfully reinterpreted by (the House of) Lalique. The spirit of the new designs is evocative of the past, with modern takes on dragonflies, scarabs, lilies of the valley, peacocks, as well as mythological figures and goddesses, such as Psyché or Vesta. Yet, the style and the materials used are decidedly contemporary,” Curiel notes.
Obadia says he spends a lot of time for each collection looking through the 2,500 drawings still in the Lalique archives, but he never uses an original drawing when starting on his own sketches, preferring instead to step away and assimilate what he’s seen to produce his own designs. “I’m really trying to do a bridge between René Lalique and what we want him to be today. Some of his designs, you can really wonder when they were created because they are extremely modern even though they have a very Art Nouveau inspiration,” Obadia says.
Ghika notes that, as with many of his contemporaries, mythology was often embedded in the creative process of Lalique, and Obadia and Kazuro are today perpetuating this use of mythology, by linking each collection to a Greek goddess such as Vesta, the guardian of the sacred fire, the lovers Eros and Psyche, and more recently Gaia, Mother Earth.
“I always need to find a story I want to tell. I don’t know how to work without one, and there is always a phase in the creative process where we write down the story,” explains Obadia. Like the jewelry master, Obadia’s collections are full of whimsical dragonflies, peacocks, and butterflies, though in a contemporary, stylized design and the designer also like to mix precious materials like diamond, emerald, and sapphire with non-precious materials like mother of pearl and crystal.
“My little trick as a designer is that I use colors to increase the perception of volume using a degrade de colors, so I use the lighter stones on the higher plane and the darker on the lower one. Lalique’s approach to mixing stones allows me to use emeralds, sapphires, and tsavorites on the same piece; something I would never have been able to do before.”
As the House of Lalique looks to future, the jewelry design legacy of his founder remains well alive.
As first published in the 2014 December issue of BLOUIN Lifestyle Magazine