Since René Lalique opened his glass factory in 1922, his finely crafted creations have become essential. Rory Sachs find out how they plan to celebrate the centenary and what awaits them for the next 100 years

Wingen-sur-Moder is quite modest, as are the Alsatian and German speaking locals in this densely wooded corner of northern France. But the village of around 1,600 inhabitants, with its colorful houses with pointed roofs, is home to a historic center of craftsmanship, which has fans all over the world. It houses the Lalique factory, which produces 400,000 pieces of crystal every year.

Self-proclaimed as the “ultimate symbol of French luxury” and exported across Europe, Lalique’s crystal pieces are in high demand, with the wider business reporting revenues of over €140 million in 2021. factory is currently going through a months-long order list for its intricately handcrafted creations.

Parts are formed using 1,400°C furnaces that are always on fire, save for occasional 30-minute cool-downs and extensive inspections and re-engineering, which take place approximately every seven years. Inside, the average piece is prepared and crafted by 26 workers who spend a cumulative 30 hours transforming raw materials from a lead-rich chemical potion into exquisite artifacts that are inspected for any slight imperfections.

Once acid-tempered, burnished and drilled with nanoscopic precision, each piece of crystal is allowed to bear the surname of René Lalique, who fired the first kilns there in the fall of 1922, almost exactly 100 years ago. He maintained his own exacting standards.

“Without the factory, we would be no one, nothing,” said Frederick Fischer, Lalique’s managing director in the UK, referring to the factory’s centenary celebrations. “It’s a big party – a big step…because we started in 1888 as jewellers, then we became, by accident, glassmakers.

René Lalique lights the first furnaces of the Alsace glassworks in the fall of 1922. Image: Lalique

Jeweler in Paris, Lalique, born in 1860, cut his teeth under the tutelage of the goldsmith Louis Aucoc while taking courses at the School of Decorative Arts in the city. It wasn’t long before Lalique’s pieces were widely acclaimed; at the beginning of the 20th century, he obtained the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honor. He became known as “the inventor of modern jewelry”.

Yet the former Cartier designer also became known for his perfume bottles, and in 1909 he rented a glassworks house in Combs-la-Ville, in the suburbs of Paris. In 1911, he created an exhibition entirely devoted to glassware. “He started making vases, figurines, chandeliers,” says Fischer. ‘It was the end of Art Nouveau, the beginning of Art Deco in 1922, and Maison Lalique became popular as [a] glassmaker.’

In his introduction to a design catalog for the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, Lalique wrote that glass was “a material which lends itself to an almost infinite number of utilitarian and ornamental combinations”, before praising its industry peers: “It is you who should receive the glory for promoting and spreading its use for the greater good.

Glass has become for Lalique a means of reconciling the forces of art and industry while democratizing beauty. “He was a very smart businessman,” says Anne-Céline Desaleux, associate director of the Lalique Museum, which opened near the factory in 2011 to commemorate the designer’s lifetime works. “He was also able to find qualified people to work with him.”

In search of more factory space, he was directed to Wingen-sur-Moder in 1919 after France regained control of Alsace at the end of World War I – with the help of Alexandre Millerand, one of the first enthusiasts of Lalique creations who later became the French president.

Production began at the site in 1922, when Lalique was 62 years old. “Alsace is famous for glassware,” says Fischer, who is himself from the region. “Often we have families, grandfather, father and son, who work in the village factory. We celebrate the factory itself, but also all the people who have worked for the factory.

How is Lalique crystal made?

In the dry heat of the factory’s hot glassware workshop, a Lalique technician extracts molten crystal from one of the 12 clay ovens in the large perch kiln. Clay makers spend three weeks casting these little kilns, which have a lifespan of four months before they need to be replaced due to wear, in a procedure known as “pot changing”, where men in protective gear extract clay from the kiln (pictured at the top of the article).

“You’re in luck, because we have one of the smallest objects at the same time as one of the biggest vases,” Frédéric Bour, who works in product development, tells me as he shows me around the factory. We observe the preparation of the Languedoc vases: only three of them can be made in an hour, but the factory also produces crystal shards for rings, producing up to 60 tiny shards in the same amount of time.

A Lalique artisan retouches an incandescent Bacchantes vase with a torch.
A Lalique artisan retouches an incandescent Bacchantes vase with a torch. Image: Lalique

My visit coincides with a shoot for the France 3 television channel; network cameramen are enthralled by the action, standing just meters from the plume of 1,000°C molten crystal that hangs from a metal pole wielded by one of the craftsmen. After Lalique’s death in 1945, his son Marc took over the family business and devoted himself entirely to the luxury market. Since the 1950s, these furnaces only produce crystal.

The craftsman quickly puts the molten material into an iron mould, of which there are about 6,000 in the workshop’s inventory. There, the mixture cools from around 1,400°C to around 800°C, before being placed in sand to prevent it from cracking as it solidifies.

Tempered, cooled and extracted from cast iron, Lalique ornaments undergo laborious quality controls. Flaws and imperfections are highlighted with a marker pen, while delicate carvings are coated with a protective plaster material before an intensive acid bath. “Our competitors aren’t as crazy as we are,” Bour says.

He adds that “no computer, no machine” can compete with the intricate details of a handmade piece. It takes time for craftsmen to acquire the necessary dexterity, and there are often long delays when training new workers. “You have to be very handy,” laughs Desaleux. “You work a lot with your hands, and you have to be very precise, and be able to do things over and over again.”

As with her jewelry, Lalique’s main inspirations for her glassware were her beloved “three Fs”: fauna, flora, and the female form. “We have lots of dragonflies, butterflies, snakes…and even bats,” Desaleux says of the artifacts she’s seen as part of her archival work for the Lalique Museum. Over the past decade, 650 pieces of glassware and jewelry have been collected, some on loan from collectors and Lalique himself, which the museum otherwise could not afford.

It seems inevitable, says Desaleux, that the surrounding nature of the Northern Vosges influenced early designs for the factory. 21st century designs also pay homage to these inspirations – a toad sculpture has been delicately embellished with gold bubbles, while the white and gold vase is lined with gold leaf and mimics one of Lalique’s 1939 designs, itself even inspired by the Medici vase, made in Athens in the 1st century. The Angélique vase, shown above in ultramarine blue, is a powerful “hymn of praise to nature and femininity”, according to the brand.

crystal jars
From the far left: the Angélique vase by Lalique, the Versailles vase and the Mossi votive Images: Lalique

While true to the “three Fs”, today’s designers are breathing new life into the brand, modernizing traditional designs with new colors and patterns. For 2022, Lalique launched a collection of cerulean blue patterns, updating several of Lalique’s signatures from the factory’s early years – a Tourbillons vase and a Languedoc vase from 1926, as well as a Bacchantes from 1927, which featured several representations of European women.

Reimagining the design for a modern age, the new Bacchantes azure, which were first unveiled by Lalique 95 years ago, feature more diversity, says Fischer. ‘We asked [photographer] Terry Rodgers to do a new version, so the girls come from all over the world,” says Fischer. “Each piece has only one mold, and we made eight pieces… They are all unique.”

On the occasion of this centenary, the factory is also producing a rare collection of 10 perfume bottles signed “Flacon Fusion”, at a price of €21,500. They bear motifs representing a fern, one of René Lalique’s favorite plants, and essential to the manufacturing process: fern potash gives the density of the crystalline structure and serves to lower its melting point.

***

Swiss entrepreneur Silvio Denz acquired Lalique in 2008 with a business modernization plan and opened Villa René Lalique in 2015. What was once Lalique’s private residence near the factory in Wingen-sur-Moder has been remodeled and redesigned into six luxury getaway rooms.

The hotel has a two-star Michelin restaurant where Austrian chef Paul Stradner serves dishes inspired by Lalique’s heritage. Diners, meanwhile, can gaze out through the picture windows at the towering trees of the surrounding garden – just as Lalique would have done in the 1920s – and watch the approaching nightfall and the crystal and glassware throughout the room refract a lower, dimmed light.

Beautiful villa hotel Wingen sur Moder
Villa Rene Lalique has six ornate suites and boasts a two-star Michelin hotel Image: Olivier Wong

For UK-based customers, a staycation could even inspire a return to the brand’s boutique in London’s Burlington Arcade. Elsewhere, Lalique superfans might also enjoy exploring the Hotel & Restaurant Lalique in Bordeaux and visiting Scottish distillery Glenturret for lunch, which opened in 2021 after Lalique acquired a 50% stake in the maker of whiskey in 2019.

Lalique arrived in the UK in 1938 with its first dealership outside France. “You know that British men mainly love three things – firstly their dog, secondly their car and thirdly their wife,” laughs Fischer. “For the car to be personalized, you could put a mascot on the bonnet of the car and René Lalique made 28 of them out of glass, and it became very, very fashionable. Everyone wanted to have a Lalique mascot on their car.’

Fischer notes that the tastes of British consumers remain conservative: “Some of them, they keep their car for 30, 40 years. And when they’ve decided they like a brand, like Lalique, they go for it. They always come back, and that’s amazing for us.

However, new customers are constantly discovering the brand, to the delight of Fischer. It tells the story of a couple from Essex who came to Lalique after seeing his lamps and sconces decorate a room at Claridge’s where they were staying. “They spent £6,000 with us. We have customers who spend a lot more… but £6,000 is a nice sale,” says Fischer. As the Lalique factory celebrates its 100th anniversary, it’s not just the ovens that are shining brightly.

Image: Sequence Studio

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