Picture the imperious vision of a film star, a femme fatale with mesmerising kohl-rimmed eyes in a richly-sensuous velvet cloak sweeping down the grand staircase of the Paris Opera House.
Other lesser-known opera buffs and assorted stargazers are trans-fixed not so much by the haughty mien of the lady but by the magnificent clasp of silver and enamel holding her cloak just below her milk-white throat.
This was Sarah Bernhardt, queen of the silent movies in the Belle Epoque era who could very well have sported this almost heraldic omament, a creation by the Art Nouveau master of the 1890s, Rene Lalique.
It was the splendid Bernhardt – reputed to be the greatest actress of all time and the celluloid epitome of Cleopatra – who put Lalique on the map. Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a revolt in most of Europe against jewellery historicism manifesting in a blend of naturalism and abstraction.
This found particular expression in very expensive jewellery – especially like the high relief Egyptian headpiece that was converted into a brooch later – with naturalistic animal figures, snakes, beetles and butterflies. They were meant to give the impression of a mobility, chiaroscuro flights of gossamer fancy through the colour of their iridescent stones.
Rene Lalique, who rode on the rising star of Miss Bernhardt creating many original and stunning pieces for her, was born in 1850 to a Parisian merchant. At 16, he was apprenticed to a jeweller Louis Aucoc and in 1878 went to college in England. After his return to Paris two years later, he began designing fans, fabrics and wall papers.
In 1884, Lalique exhibited his own jewels for the first time at the Louvre and between 1891 and 1894 made the dramatic jewels for the divine Sarah that brought them both to the forefront of the public. She gave his creations the magnetism that she exuded on the silent screen.
By 1902, he had expanded so much he moved his workshops and opened a showcase for them in his museum in Lisbon.
In 1905, he was commissioned to produce scent bottles for Francois Coty and thereafter, the Lalique name and signature became embodied in Belle Epoque glassware, of which the Coty bottle still remains a classic.
Though Lalique glassware are collectors’ items, he was most influential in transposing the Art Nouveau forms onto lavish jewellery, many of which reflect the other famous Art Nouveau master William Morris of England. The latter’s designs on wallpapers and fabrics are much-sought after and are today available at Liberty’s of London.
This French Impressionism drew heavily from the master impressionist Monet whose favourite still life subject of lilies were often embodied in Lalique’s muted glass creations of ethereal elegance.
The name Art Nouveau is believed to have come from the German journal Die Jugend which means ‘Youth Style’ developed in France but spread to the rest of the world by the beginning of the 20th century.
For the invention of new jewellery, there was suddenly a vast area of creativity and it actually became irrelevant whether an individual piece was of costly gems and precious metals or silver and agate. This new style was all – from furniture to clothing to jewellery – and became an end in itself.
By l920, a counter-revolution in favour of richness and costly gems had begun and once again jewels took centrestage. The result was quite vulgar pieces of thick platinum, gold and silver where what matter was the costly gem at centrestage and not the aesthetic design or artistic effect of the setting.
After World War I, the shift was still towards decorative value. There emerged from Viennese workshops, an ornamental style that utilised much less expensive jewels yet produced completely new designs that was neither Art Nouveau nor the pure geometry that existed at the same time.
Gold, small stones and pearls formed the new type of omaments that gave the wearer a decorative character. The art for everyone had been found, sometimes termed jewels of the bourgeoisie. Lalique turned his attention to glassware, the medium he was most inspired with.
Lalique’s silver, enamel and turquoise head ornament circa 1890 was made for Liane de Pougy, a famous courtesan who married a French Prince and upon widow-hood, became a nun. Because of Lalique’s association with Sarah Bernhardt, it was believed to have been inspired by her role of Cleopatra in 1890. The dragon’s body with textured wings of fine scale and feather detail has a startling impression of frozen evil in its gaping jaws. The two beads hanging from the tail are of chrysophase stones, with an almost primitive quality about them. Liane and Sarah were good friends and no doubt shared many intimate secrets of their different conquests.
The present owner, Bernard Silver who owns the Silver jewellery shop in Burlington Gardens, London, is not about to sell it to just anyone. Perhaps some grand dame who will once again wear it to stunning effect. Certainly not an investor after a quick profit, Miss Bernhardt and Miss Pougy would turn in their graves.
A more definitive Lalique piece is the Thistle Corsage clasp in gold, glass, enamel, diamonds and aquamarine circa 1905-1907. Moulded glass thistles are set into spiky green enamel and a gold frame set with diamonds to depict foliage on either side of a large aquamarine.
Lalique made only five of these with two currently in the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.