While the business of luxury has flung open its damask curtains in recent years, there’s one area that remains a relatively closed affair; the inner workings of the factory.
Factory, atelier, workshop, call it what you will, luxury brands like to reveal a limited, curated view (as witnessed by the craftsmanship porn videos flooding their social media feeds). But it’s rare that they open their doors to outside visitors. Which is precisely why a posh factory tour is one of my favourite perks of the job, allowing me to poke around in archives and workshops and deep dive into the details of a brand’s story and artistry. (See the whole gamut of visits here.)
So, what do you know about Lalique? You’re probably familiar with its frosted crystalware; deco vases and elegant perfume bottles and possibly the carved mascots that top the bonnets of Jaguars and Rolls-Royces. But René Lalique was a celebrated visionary whose creativity and innovation played a big part in the style evolution of 20th century Paris.
WINGEN-SUR-MODER A two-hour flight and scenic afternoon drive led me to the village of Wingen-sur-Moder in Alsace, northeastern France for a whirlwind trip to the Lalique factory, hotel and museum. Our small group of journalists arrived on a Thursday afternoon for an evening of
gluttony gastronomy, wine and revelry at the 3-year-old Villa René Lalique hotel. This special hotel, originally built by René Lalique as his family home, is worthy of its own post, but with only a handful of rooms, sadly it couldn’t accommodate us all. So following our four-hour feast we retired to the neighbouring Chateau Hochburg (below, also Lalique-owned) for a good night’s sleep. A few hours later, we had breakfasted and checked out for our 8am factory tour.
Do you know how crystalware is made? It’s a little bit of alchemy and a lot of science carried out by accomplished master–glassmakers. At Lalique there’s a vast range of objects in production, each one involving dozens of steps and techniques. Born in 1860, René Lalique studied art in Paris (and, interestingly, Sydenham in England), later working as a freelance jewellery designer for Cartier and Boucheron. When he started making his own pieces he was famously experimental with materials. Glass, horn and enamel featured heavily in his nature-inspired designs, which were in tune with the art nouveau spirit of the early 1900s. By the 1910s Lalique had diversified from jewellery into all manner of other decorative glassware. Such was his success that he had to expand his operations, choosing to build a factory in Wingen-sur-Moder, renowned for its glassmaking heritage. Today, the area continues to employ local glassmakers, decendent from previous generations.
THE LALIQUE FACTORY At the Lalique factory we were able to witness the full breadth of output as everything is made on these almost-100-year-old premises. We started right at the beginning, in the part of the factory where the ‘pots’ are made. These are handmade clay crucibles that are put inside the furnace. Lalique still makes its own pots, which is a full-on process. It takes one man 24 days to make three pots, then each pot takes a minimum of six months to dry. The pots deteriorate over time so after three months of use, they’re broken down in the furnace. There are 12 pots in the circular furnace at the Lalique factory. For coloured crystal, oxides are added to sand and a specific colour production cycle has to be followed from light to dark. Get this wrong and later crystal objects made in the same pot might be contaminated with darker colours. So much information and we haven’t even got to the moulds…
MAKING THE MOULDS The designs for all Lalique crystalware are created by a team in Paris and digital files sent to the factory in Wingen-Sur-Moder. There are currently 6000 moulds stored here and the mould-making itself is a labour intensive operation. We weren’t allowed to photograph the moulds being made but there are two processes. One involves making steel moulds and another uses a ‘lost wax’ process for smaller or more intricate objects.
For bigger pieces, we were shown a machine making a steel mould, which is in use around the clock, seven days a week. One piece can take six days per part (steel moulds are made of separate parts that are joined together). In total it can take 18 months from initial drawing to finished item and now we know why!
The lost wax process was first used by René Lalique for his delicately detailed glass jewellery pieces. It starts with a model of the piece, which is then moulded in elastomer, a type of rubber that allows for flexibility. Wax is then poured into the mould and removed once cool and hardened. The next stage is pouring plaster over this wax piece; when it’s placed in the furnace, the wax melts, leaving behind a hollow plaster mould. Crystal is then melted into this new mould at high temperatures and afterwards the plaster is removed leaving the finished raw piece.
HOT WORKING And now for the fun bit. From the mould-making studio we were shown the ‘hot working’ in progress, as an almost choreographed scene played out in front of us. Different pieces were being fired simultaneously in the various pots; as one glassmaker removed his red hot blob of molten crystal, another would casually dance past with a weighty-looking vase on the end of his pole. In typically practiced craftsman fashion, it all looked deceptively effortless.
In reality, it’s incredibly skilled because the work is done at speed. Once the molten crystal comes out of the furnace, there are only a few seconds to clean it, place it in the mould and shape it before re-firing it. It has to be re-fired at 500°c to restabilise it, otherwise it can explode.
Depending on its size, a team of up to seven people might work on a single piece. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one in three pieces is a fail. As with many luxury facilities, quality checks happen throughout the process and any imperfect results at this stage go back into ‘scrap’ to be recycled. The successful pieces go forward for the next round, to the ‘cold working’ section, to be polished and finished to Lalique’s exacting standards.
COLD WORKING From the heat and theatre of the hot section we went to the calmer but equally industrious ‘cold section’, where vases, perfume bottles and art pieces were being fine-tuned. Here, any tell-tale mould seams are polished away and dexterous sculptors resculpt any pieces to match the original drawing. A crucial element is the signature matte effect of Lalique crystal, the ‘sculpting of light’ that gives the sense of movement to the vases and figurines.
For the bigger pieces, this involves heavy lifting work, alternately dunking each piece in acid baths to create first transparency, then a frosted effect. We watched one of Damien Hirst’s unwieldy crosses being polished – an arduous operation requiring strength and precision. While finessing the dainty trinkets can be delicate and detail-focused, I couldn’t help noticing the number of beefy tattooed blokes carrying out the work.
One of the final cold working steps is called ‘protection’, a René Lalique method of combining sandblasted and clear glass in the same piece. Protective masking paints are carefully brushed onto the piece and then the relevant areas are etched or frosted to achieve the signature opalescent effect.
All around the factory we saw surfaces covered with gem-hued objects awaiting a process or a quality check. My interest was especially piqued by the statuesque perfume bottles. Lalique famously designed early bottles for the likes of Coty, Worth and Guerlain, transforming the traditional apothecary-style bottles into jewel-like works of art. As a rule, if a Lalique bottle features an ornate design, its stopper will be plain and vice versa.
To celebrate this year’s 130th anniversary, the Mon Premier Cristal collection boasts a limited edition of 130 numbered bottles of Hirondelles Absolu de Parfum (below, available in selected boutiques and likely to be snapped up by collectors). These special bottles come hand-painted with 23 carat gold swallows – a favourite Lalique good luck symbol.
MUSÉE LALIQUE As if the factory visit wasn’t enough, we had another treat in store. After a ‘light bite’ (in reality, another feast) across the road at Chateau Hochberg, we were given a private tour of the Lalique museum. Built in 2011, it was designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who also designed the magnificent Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, which I visited in 2012. Musée Lalique is set in lush green grounds which serve as the perfect backdrop to René Lalique’s flora and fauna-inspired designs.
Alongside the permanent display of jewellery, tableware, lighting and sketches, there’s currently a temporary exhibition, ‘Prism’, celebrating the work of contemporary artists who have worked with Lalique crystal, including Damien Hirst, Terry Rodgers and Anish Kapoor.
But once again, all my attention was diverted to the fantastic array of perfume flacons, of which there are 250. The coloured glass is just incredible! It was the perfumer Francois Coty who first invited René to work his magic on his scent bottles. In doing this, the perfume industry was revolutionised, paving the way for the marketing of fragrance in which a unique bottle is as desirable as the juice inside.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1992 that Lalique produced its own fragrances, with the creation of Lalique de Lalique under the direction of René’s granddaughter Marie-Claude Lalique, who took over the company in 1977. I’d have liked to know more about Marie-Claude, who was also responsible for reviving the Lalique jewellery. Perhaps we’ll get to learn more about Marie-Claude Lalique yet, there are unconfirmed whisperings of a special perfume exhibition coming up at the Lalique museum, so stay tuned for updates…
VILLA RENÉ LALIQUE One more note. If you’re a crystal enthusiast and are planning a visit to the museum (sadly, the factory isn’t open to the public), do try to stay at Villa René Lalique. It’s a short drive from the museum in picturesque countryside and you can visit a couple of other museums in this famous glassmaking region including Saint-Louis and Meisenthal.
The Hansel & Gretel-style villa is furnished and decorated throughout with Lalique artwork and design details everywhere you look. In a modern adjoining glass pavilion, the dining room is hung with a Lalique Windfall chandelier of individual crystal pieces and food is served on everything Lalique. Even the cruets are crystal.
This has all been made possible by Lalique owner Silvio Denz, an avid collector who bought the company ten years ago. He turned the villa into a six-suite hotel, enlisting chef Jean-Georges Klein for the two Michelin star restaurant. Wine connoiseurs are in for a special treat – the cellar houses 12,000 bottles of wine from the Denz collection. (And as I know nothing about wine, here’s the link to find out all the deets.) Suffice to say, if you’re a wine drinker, you won’t go thirsty.
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WORDS AND IMAGES: Disneyrollergirl/Navaz Batliwalla
Thank you to Lalique for hosting me at the factory, museum and Chateau Hochburg