Recognized as one of the greatest jewelry (and glass) designers in the world, René Lalique was an artist full of imagination and creativity. He contributed significantly to the Art Nouveau movement, and was innovative in his designs and the materials he used.
Art Nouveau jewelers like Lalique distanced themselves from conventional precious stones and put greater emphasis on the subtle effects of materials such as glass, horn and enamel. Lalique chose his materials for aesthetic effect and artistic refinement, not for mere preciousness or brilliance.
Credited with introducing horn into the jewelry repertoire in 1896, Lalique mainly used buffalo horn from India or South America, which was flexible and could be pressed or twisted under heat, and also dyed. With colors ranging from almost colorless to deep rich browns, horn can be carved and formed easily and has been prized for centuries.
Lalique sculpted horn in the shape of flowers, waves, trees, butterflies, birds and more for his hair combs, diadems and other hair ornaments. He also inserted colored enamel into the spaces, using the cloisonné technique.
Lalique dazzled the public with his designs and many of his hair combs are considered masterpieces, residing in museums around the world. When one of his combs comes to auction, it can sell anywhere from four figures to a record-breaking amount, as was the case in 2015.
At a sale at Treadway Toomey Auctions, a rare Lalique sea holly hair comb, circa 1900 and made of horn, silver, gold and glass, caused a frenzy with collectors and sold for a hair-raising world record of $205,500. The pre-sale estimate had been $20,00-$30,000. The comb was from the collection of Roy and Sarita Warshawsky of Chicago automotive fame.
The sea holly comb is a curvilinear mirror image of two gold cone flowers with patinated silver stems and leaves. The plants frame the top of a large sapphire-colored glass cabochon. The lighter leaves in the middle are part of a second plant. Although they frame the bottom of the cabochon, the second plant continues on the bottom of the comb in delicately carved horn, with the stems doubling as its outside tines.
Most of these pieces may be small, but Lalique’s hair combs and other adornments make big and bold statements. Here are just some of his many other beautiful hair ornaments:
Orange Sun and Landscape
In the second half of the 20th century, the land of the rising sun was opening up to the rest of the world, and Japanese art was beginning to inspire many European artists, including Lalique. He decorated this horn comb, circa 1900, with a blue and green enameled mountain landscape and trees at sunrise. The scene is reflected in water, creating a mirror image. In the foreground, a leafless tree anchors and balances the composition; 5-1/4″ x 4-1/2″. This sold at Christie’s in 2009 for $92,500.
This shield-shaped carved horn panel, circa 1898, depicts two gold-stained snakes poised to strike, surrounded by scattered vari-shape cabochon peridots, and with three additional gold-stained carved snakes. The tails of all the snakes form the teeth of the comb. This sold at Christie’s in 2002 for $107,550.
The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore says this is one of the greatest treasures in its collection and an undoubted Art Nouveau masterpiece. Lalique revolutionized jewelry design in the final decade of the 19th century by combining materials in unexpected ways, developing new techniques and reviving old ones, and blending historical and cultural references to create new vocabularies and forms. This orchid comb showcases these innovations and represents the height of his jewelry production. Lalique’s studio rendered the highly naturalistic orchid at the center of the comb out of a single piece of ivory; diamonds play a supporting role, picking out the veins along three slim leaves in glowing plique-à-jour enamel. The stem is attached by a gold hinge to a three-pronged horn comb. This is the most flamboyant of all the pieces purchased by museum founder Henry Walters at the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Never intended to be worn, it entered the collection as a masterpiece of technical accomplishment in the field of the decorative arts.
Branche de Pommier Diadème
The influence of the naturalism of Japanese art can also be seen in this horn, diamonds and gold “Apple Tree” diadem, c. 1901-02. The elegant apple tree bough, characterized by its decorative simplicity, is another example of the wonderful and inexhaustible botanical repertoire that inspired so much of Lalique’s work throughout his career.
Snakes were a common motif of Lalique’s, as this horn and turquoise hair pin attests. Designed as two entwined snakes, each bite the same ball-shaped object, circa 1900-1905, around 8” h and 3” w. This sold at Sotheby’s in 2018 for $44,384.
The horn head of this comb is covered with a bone plate on which are engraved three winged, naked women, each of their wings adorned with a cabochon of blue glass; the three teeth are in blond horn; 3-1/2″ h, about 2-1/2″ at the widest point. This sold at Christie’s in 2008 for $30,723.
A carved horn hair comb depicting flower blossoms and centering on a rectangular-cut amethyst, circa 1900, 4-3/4” x 4”. This was from the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller and sold in 2018 at Christie’s for $6,875.
Swallows with a Stalk of Oats
Japanese hair combs captivated the European world when they were introduced at the Paris exhibition of 1867 and started a craze in France called Japonisme. The Japanese had a close relationship with nature, which produced some stunning jewelry, and Western artists, including Lalique, became influenced by this. The inspiration of nature, and the motif of swallows, which was common in Japan, is seen in this hair comb, Two Swallows with a Stalk of Oats. Circa 1906-1908, the comb is made of carved horn, gold and diamonds, and the bird’s wings are elongated to form the prongs.
Another swallows’ hair comb by Lalique that he crafted from one piece of horn in two different shades, circa 1902, depicts three painted swallows with diamond-adorned wings. It’s shown with his original sketch.
Trois Perles Suspendues
This comb is set with three baroque-shaped natural pearls and old-cut diamond surmounts, with each suspended within a carved ivy mottled surround, circa 1904-1906; around 4″. This sold at Christie’s in 2015 for $47,310.
The body of this diadem, circa 1903-1904, features more orchids: one in horn and the other in ivory, with a small drop-shaped topaz in its center. The three-pronged comb is also in horn and connected to the diadem by a gold hinge. Lalique first exhibited a bracelet made of horn at the 1896 Paris Salon and following its success, he continued to produce jewels in horn and ivory during the following years. According to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, which has this in its collection, the exotic orchid was one of the flowers that symbolized the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century, and Art Nouveau jewelers handled the flower with great realism, which is heightened in this case by Lalique’s technical mastery. He started from the real flower yet managed to imbue it simultaneously with elegance and a powerful erotic charge.
A closer look at the orchids.
Masque with Dancing Nymphs and Serpents
This carved galalith comb, circa 1900, depicts a pair of nymphs dancing around an open-mouthed mask within a carved horn surround designed as two serpents. It is enhanced by an oval cabochon sapphire between their mouths; 5-1/8″ x 6-1/2″. From the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, it sold in 2018 at Christie’s for $65,000.
Bees and Flowers
Besides horn, Lalique also experimented with celluloid, from which this comb is made. The comb, 1900, features gold and enamel bees buzzing around diamond-tipped flowers. This piece was ordered in Paris in 1900 by Mrs. Howard Mansfield of New York, and it’s likely that she commissioned it while attending the Paris International Exposition.
This piece is remarkable for its delicate treatment of the cockerel’s comb and caruncles, in fine gold mesh, as well as the magnificent enamel work in iridescent tones of blue and green, so characteristic of Lalique’s jewelry. The diadem, circa 1897-98, is in the form of a free-standing cockerel’s head, made of gold, horn and enamel, holding a quartz crystal – of cut amethyst – in its beak. The comb, made of horn and formed of three teeth, is joined with a gold hinge; 3-1/2″ h, 6″ w. According to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, which has this in its collection, this diadem was displayed at the Paris Exposition in 1900, where, like his “Dragonfly” corsage ornament, it provoked great shock and admiration, definitively cementing Lalique’s reputation.
Golden Bug and Blossom
This comb, circa 1898-1899, is sawed of a light, transparent horn. Its curved top is continued in a tendril that recoils in an upturned S-shape. The tendril ends in a round, puffy blossom of a lion’s tooth made of matte-etched glass. There is an enameled, naturalistic insect sitting in the center of the flower: a golden bug with two long feelers, a blue chitin cover and black legs. The rim of the petal is of irregular thickness, being blue opaque at the wider places. This comb is also a typical example of Japanese influence of Lalique’s work; 4-1/4″ h, 4″ w.
Close-up details of the golden insect.
Gold and Fire Opals
This tiara comb, 1903-1904, is a prime example of how Lalique molded and sculpted horn in various shapes. Here his horn flowers are accessorized with cast glass, enameled gold and fire opals. This also has a matching bodice ornament.
The tiara comb and its matching bodice ornament.