Tag Archives: rene lalique

Alphons Mucha’s 2nd Prize Jewelry



What is success?  For artists, the public is really only aware of a very few.  The ones that have withstood the test of modern, media time, artists that an average, educated adult could identify.  By identifying an artist, I mean not the name that is linked with a single iconic work, but one whose style is unforgettable, really registers.  The ones  that still sell posters, lunchboxes, and magnets, in every Midwest city bookshop, who are accepted as clearly being artists by people who would never on their own visit an art gallery in their life.  Among these few are Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, and of course Alphons Mucha.

The humble artist who was tapped by stage and screen star Sarah Burnhardt to work his designing full time, turned out to be more than a smart promotions move.  This Bohemian slumming it in Paris happened to have the most fluid, expressive line around, a quality that was just at that moment in time deeply desired by the elite – and it happened Mucha became one of just a few artists that really transformed all of visual design and the printed layout at the time.  It may be better to say that central to this was a totally new exposure to Asian art, and it was Mucha that codified the new design rules into the European style book.

Cascade, 1900

Cascade, 1900

The turn of the century, when 1899 became 1900, was for some a hopeful time, thanks to science people were beginning to think humans really could be wizards.  Inventive, not necessarily noble people were getting rich, sometimes with inventions or improved machinery, sometimes through the savage colonization of people with less sophisticated weapons.   The bizarre magic of electric lights and the motion pictures were appearing everywhere. For the European elite, the turn of the century was extra charged.  Each new country occupied by a European nation meant a boost to the market, so to speak, regardless of the long-term costs to all parties.  People were getting very close to making the first successful powered flight in an airplane, 1903, and gliders, balloons, and other contraptions occupied dilettante minds and hovered overhead.  In 1905 Einstein wrote a paper on photoelectric effect, one birth of quantum mechanics.  Thanks to potatoes and a reprieve from plague, population had exploded, making labor in Europe unbelievably cheap, while dissolving the traditions of apprenticeship.   This meant young designers with a fancy hand on the pencils could afford to employ seasoned craftsmen.

For the great majority of the people however, all of these wonders were carnival instances between lives of drudgery, but in this day, as though remembering through time and space, Mucha is best known as a poster artist, the artist who filled Paris with the most beautiful, free art posters you could imagine, and is still a household name.

The Zodiac, still in print

The Zodiac, still in print

Coming into his own at just this time was Mucha, who with little access to the world of owning fine things, had set about creating them for himself and been granted the situation to run with it.   He must have known that the  1900 Universal Exhibition was going to be a tremendous competition.  It was an intense concentration of high skill and inspiration on display in the new style, and it remains legendary for this reason.  Presenters had been working as long as ten years to prepare for it.  It showed what people are capable of, a side that is rarely seen.

It has been argued that it was so exceptional because the optimism brought by science and technology introduced a relief from the pessimism and lack of choice that followed a long reign of apocalyptic beliefs.  Or that it was a relief for the collective mind to see as new the art of other cultures, which helped break the aesthetic and symbolistic controls of their environment, that had been hardening in place for nearly two thousand years.   Though technology’s romantic side quickly gave way to an orgy of weaponization and destruction, Art Nouveau could be argued to be the aesthetic of humanism.

Reading the materials of the time, however, he was painted as quite the opposite.  In the New Century in 1904 he was described as a new version of the same old mysticism, the stuff of that his art rejects science and analysis in favor of natural beauty.  He is described along with a roster of artists as among those trying to resist modernity, and vestiges of this view remain.  One gets the sense in the article that this distaste for Nouveau was a casualty of the fever for hunting and eliminating old viewpoints, a foretaste of the passionate desire and then shame of fascism that would from these beginning claim all its acts to be in the name of science, modernity and progress.

Bracelet worn by Sarah Burnhardt in her role of Cleopatra

Bracelet worn by Sarah Burnhardt in her role of Cleopatra

Sarah BUrnhardt CLeopatra 1899

As the fair approached, the style in his posters was already being imitated across the city and beyond.  Even as wallpaper and textiles, these flames from a spark that appears to have come from Mucha’s flyer doodles.  Things had fully come to a boil, all in the new style that Mucha had been promoting.  And the greatest artisans there weren’t just introducing their own  product lines, they could also be found competing to win the prize for the best booth design.  At the same time he was designing a dozen lines, from posters to objects, Mucha managed to create an exquisite gilded metal bust for a perfumery booth, for the same fair he revealed his elaborate jewelry designs.

Display for Houbigant Perfumerie

Display for Houbigant Perfumerie

We all know that a certain Rene Lalique came out of that fair with his name synonymous to the 1900 style.  And this must have been a difficult outcome for Mucha, after he invested considerable time into a joint venture with another master jeweller of Paris, Georges Fouquet, he might even have been sure of himself.   Perhaps it was not a problem at all, they sold much jewelry besides.  I think the key difference is visible in the work, that Lalique is slightly better suited to the jewelry medium.  Familiar with the materials, a family background in glass, he could design with the specific capacities of the materials directly in mind.  Young Mucha’s designs instead show a kind of monotony of scale, and when he set down to invent jewels, they were like his posters, only miniaturized.  The complex drawings are just a little too fine for the way light plays on a small object, just a little too delicate to be held firmly in the human hand, and greatly increased the time in production of each piece.  He was too much of an illustrator to be a perfect craftsman.


Mucha Fouquet Brooch

What both Lalique and Mucha had in common, that Fouquet and other contemporaries seem to have had less of, was a childlike permission to draw from their imaginations.  Both Lalique and Mucha continued uninterrupted throughout their careers to draw the snakes, skulls, goblins, naked girls and magical themes that motivated them since boyhood.  Their adolescent imaginings were perfectly time with the young art movement, leaving them no need to change their repertoire, unconditioned to deliver the epics and myths required for institutional careering.

This made them odd birds for making jewelry,  one of the more engineering oriented and metallurgical arts, but this only compounded the refreshing character of them.  It was a moment when design became more valuable than production or materials, and people in the right position for it could pick almost any field to work over and gain quick notice with little competition. Many of Fouquet’s designs still held an adherence to the sharp corners of Victorian design, almost half way into the new style; he was either an apologist or moved with the times begrudgingly.  Fortunately, in executing Mucha’s designs, he was also rigidly dutiful, or was not allowed to stray by the artist.  The artist would in turn make his shop into perhaps the most elaborate, fantastical jewelry shop of all time.

Foquet's Shop, designed by Mucha



Lalique would eventually turn to revising the glassworks of his own background, almost every rare car’s radiator would be eventually capped by one of his fabulous cast glass plugs, flowers draped from his affordable line of vases.  Mucha left jeweling behind, but nevertheless became so respected he would redesign the money of his native Czechoslovakia, making arguably the most beautiful paper money ever produced.  There, decades later, he demonstrated with engraving a way that his finer lines could be put to their best use.


In a way, like all great changes in art movements, Nouveau was a premonition of today’s consumer culture, driven by the tastes and pocketbooks of elite identities.   But it was more than that, it had a rebellious, minor key tone to it that retains an almost populist respect, as though it were an artform that could not be criticized as merely excessive.  And it is uniquely identifiable, the curious arrival of a very new aesthetic, just at the dawn of mass production, that would help to unravel aesthetic as a cultural norm.  It suggests what modernity is capable of, and is at the same time a reminder of how easily beauty can be set aside and overpowered, perhaps this is why it remains protected by the public at large.


Products of all kinds continue to be released, using his designs as the measure.

Anyone with sense would be happy to say they took second place to Lalique for the gran prix.  But the astounding display of skill that year didn’t last for very long, war and its draining of the cultural market would see the taste for an optimistic and energized aesthetic vanish just as quickly as it arrived, and like so many people at the time, Mucha retired to the contained virtual reality of nostalgia for a mythic past.

Mucha even seems to have predicted the use of his artwork beneath glass domes, ultimately resin, the magic behind fridge magnets.

Mucha even seems to have predicted the suitability of putting his artwork beneath glass domes, like today’s resin, the magic behind our fridge magnets, over which he is still arguably the king.

 Moon Pendant


For his wife, Maruška Chytilová, 1906

Made for his wife, Maruška Chytilová, 1906

· Kazuhiko Ichikawa ·


I discovered this artist on the increasingly international forum for handmade goods, Etsy.  First let me say that Etsy has made a turn for the better.  After its initial low-competition, high interest startup was a breakthrough in creating income to the fleet-footed, they chose to cash in on the press by inviting non-makers into the fold to mill seller’s fees. Every kitsch dealer, antique shop and importer on the net was eager to get a piece of the market, all of whom had vast experience with their own versions of online marketplaces, proceeded to the flood the contemporary handmade right out of public view.   Realizing their error, Etsy has refined the model, allowing visitors to quickly sort maker from supplier or reseller, retaining some of their credibility.  In its latest form it is increasingly international, and at present offers visitors place where merit and skill still have a shot at being encountered.


With Kazuhiko Ichikawa and artisans of his calibre, this is a mixed bag.  Etsy, and the craft market in general, has a buying demographic that matches the economic scope of the creative class.  Seeking status objects that are clearly not manufactured yet concerned with integrity by avoiding egregarious objects of wealth, this group seeks a pricepoint that is challenging for craftspeople living in high-rent centers of culture and design to work with.  The skill and time required to turn heads sort of collides with the buyer’s reality that’s translated from proprietary search algorithms to notoriously poor sales for anything above several hundred dollars.  It’s a comfort zone that makes crafters who want to really elevate their craft rather uncomfortable.

In Japan, Ichikawa commands choice boutique display space, public notoriety and plenty of awards, but this does not translate to international recognition.  Placing one’s self in a global marketplace targeting the appetite of the creative class means matching your talents against skilled artisans with more affordable situations in Istanbul, Buenos Aires and Jatarka.  What this translates to is excitement for anyone who notices, creating good deals for shrewd collectors, when high end art jewelers like Ichikawa crave to move beyond a cozy established practice.  He wants a place among the legends, and begins to produce inspired, affordable pieces like this just to insert himself into the international market.


His story is doubly interesting because we have a truly contemporary phenomenon.  In the history of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the related movements that swept parts the world, it is well known that no small influence came from exposure to the aesthetics and hand made goods of Asia.   Especially the opening of Japan, with its cohesive, still alive and kicking artisanal patronage system.  Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright juggled debts from his risk-taking infusion of design into structure, by vigorously importing and trading what were then utterly rare and unknown Japanese woodblock prints, making a killing at the markup with an uninformed audience.  There’s also the very broad concept of void or blank space in traditional Chinese ink painting, which was the final catalyst (permission) that collapsed centuries of European stagnant reliance on icons and symmetry in art, and was synonymous with the rebellion of youth styles.  It is hard to measure the effect new ways of seeing had, in the tangle of new ways of living (major political shifts away from aristocratic governance, the transformation of industry and mass production), but they are tangible and remain intense in our aesthetic memory.


And here we have the long term involution of a now networked culture (again, like the start of the 20th century, for better of worse).  Kazuhiko Ichikawa explains his inspirations are Art Deco, Art Noveau, he wants a piece of Rene Lalique’s crown.  What a twist, a Japanese artisan working with the permission and creative energy source of a really diverse exchange that his own culture helped introduce!  Moving in a complete circle from his own intimate connection with Japanese nature-informed design (he is on his second career after a long stint with greeting cards and stationary) he turns to his jewelry with a flexible, surprisingly youthful style.  He employs special metal alloys and techniques unique to japanese metalworking, such as keum booshakudo and mokume-gane, retaining in some pieces a clear cultural identity, while departing when he pleases using the classic design elements as his vehicle.


Beyond all this talk of culture, I think it’s evident when looking at the pieces that any artisan who derives joy and freedom from their work delivers the same feeling within their work, for anyone to see.  Visit the artist’s shop here:  KAZNESQ