René Lalique (1860-1945) was a jeweller, a glassmaker, and an artist. Although known for his exquisite glassware, intricate perfume bottles, and a series of luxurious commissions, Lalique also enjoys an alluring automotive connection.
Lalique was driven and ambitious, even from a young age. He was only 12 when he enrolled at the Collège Turgot to hone his drawing skills, and just four years later he became an apprentice to Louis Aucoc, a fine Parisian jeweller. For Lalique, however, that wasn’t enough, and he filled his evenings with additional study at the École des Arts Décoratifs and a two-year stint at the Crystal Palace School of Art in London. When he returned to France, he took on freelance commissions for Cartier and others, before setting up on his own in 1885.
By 1890 he was recognised as one of the foremost designers of his time, and created many innovative pieces for the Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Ten years later, he was named Officer of the Legion d'Honneur for the work he exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Brussels.
As the Art Deco movement gathered pace during the 1920s, Lalique found himself inundated with commissions. He designed the interiors of the Côte d’Azur Pullman Express carriages, the illuminated glass columns of the SS Normandie’s dining room, and much of St Matthew's Church, Jersey, famed for its frosted angels and fluted font, signed by René himself.
Having made everything from fountains to light fittings, it’s no surprise Lalique should have been asked to design something suitably opulent for a car. That first commission came in 1925 and from no less than André Citroën to adorn the radiator cap of his 5CV – the Cinq Chevaux, the five horses. Other designs were repurposed: Lalique’s 1920 Sirène or mermaid was originally sold as a decorative piece and often used as a paperweight, but its size and shape meant it could be easily adapted.
Lalique designed around 30 mascots in all, depicting anything from birds to dragonflies, falcons to comets. They were sold in the UK through Breves Galleries of Knightsbridge, with prices ranging from £3.3s for a greyhound to £8.8s for Vitesse, one of Lalique’s most beautiful designs. For an extra £1.1s each could be illuminated in a choice of five colours.
Lalique’s Victoire, renamed Spirit of the Wind by Breves, was a popular choice for many, including the Prince of Berar who finished off his 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III with one. The Rolls-Royce connection would be renewed in 1994 when the company commissioned 200 Lalique Spirit of Ecstasy mascots to commemorate their 90th anniversary.
Although René died in 1945, the moulds for his mascots survived the war and his son, Marc, reopened the factory. Today the original Laliques hold appeal for collectors across multiple disciplines, and with prices to match. In 2012, a rare Renard (fox) mascot sold for $338,500 at an auction in California, while a complete collection of all thirty designs saw the hammer fall at $700,000 plus $105,000 buyer’s premium.
For some, it’s possible the hood ornament is worth more than the car it’s attached to.
Are there any other artists or glassmakers who have a connection to the automotive sector that you know of? If so let us know below.