A gemological perspective on Lalique jewelry at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

René Lalique, the renown French Art Nouveau artist, became famous for his art in both jewelry and glasswork. Normally, one sees his fine jewels from the artistic and aesthetic point of view in the light of the History of the Decorative Arts. In this essay, let us look into his nique jewelry work from the gemological perspective.

Dragonfly Woman brooch, gold, enamel, moonstone and
chrysoprase. René Lalique ca. 1897-1898
© Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955), the famous Armenian oil tycoon and art collector, was a close friend and an admirer of René Lalique (1860-1945) and commissioned him numerous pieces in what is today one of the most representative jewelry collections by this artist on permanent display at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, in Lisboa, Portugal. This collection served as a motto for this essay that offers a different perspective on Lalique’s work as a jeweler, through his choices in gem materials.

René Lalique (1860-1945) in his office.
As an Art Nouveau artist, Lalique followed certain aesthetic canons of this movement, namely the naturalistic motifs of fauna and flora and a rather astute inspiration from the feminine figure. Design and symbolism, as well as manufacturing excellence, were above any other concernes in his creations, characterised by an impressive realism of shapes and a master domination of jewelry manufacturing, modelling and enamelling techniques. Pretty much at the same decades, Louis Cartier was beginning his glorious path as an Art Deco jeweler, mastering the use of platinum and using extraordinary and high value diamonds and colored gemstones, namely rubies from Burma, emeralds from Colombia, sapphires from Kashmir, Ceilon and Burma and also natural pearls from the Arabian Gulf and the South Seas. The differences in the use of gem materials by these two famous jewelers is not only much different, but also inspired by different objectives and market characteristics. On one hand, Cartier designed his masterpieces with a strong focus on the gems, their top quality characteristics and, hence, their high value. On the other hand, Lalique used them, not necessarily for their value added benefits as products, but rather for their retinal effect on his jewels thtough their colors, transparencies, translucencies, brilliances and visual effects. Gems are fundamental elements of the artist’s narrative serving as secondary elements of his designs, meaning that it is not the gem that commands the design (as in many Cartier creations), but rather the other way around. The use of alternative and lower cost gem materials is a common feature in René Lalique and, most importantly, his superb use of enamels, as did Louis Comfort Tiffany in the USA practically in the same period.

The gem content of Lalique's jewelry artefacts at the Gulbenkian collection is quite representative of what the artist used at some stage of his life, before he turned into glassworks. The use of colored gemstones and biogenic materials is much more significant than the use of diamonds. Gems with sheen effects were an Art Nouveau's favorite and also Arts and Crafts', for all that matter.


South African diamonds were on their heydays after their discovery in 1866, offering jewelers an unusual quantity of stones when compared with the scarcity of Brazilian, Indonesian and Indian gems of the period. Lalique used them frequently, but not in sizable stones, as the majority of these are well under one carat. The cutting styles are basically the rose cut for small melée and the old cut brilliant (old european cut) for the larger ones. The main purpose of these use old brilliant cut diamonds might have been their brilliance, scintillation and the multicolored rainbow effects of light dispersion (known as fire). The overall quality of these diamonds is not comparable to the selected high quality in Cartier's creations for example, demonstrating that their purpose is merely visual.

Female's Face Pendant. Gold, enamel, ivory, blue
sapphire and diamond. René Lalique ca. 1897-98
© Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

Blue Sapphire

Not long before Lalique created some of the jewels in this collection, the famous Kashmir sapphire deposits were discovered in the high Himalayas at more that 4400 metres. From 1881 until 1887 the mine was extensively worked and many top quality sapphires were produced. There is not, however, a detailed gemological study to ascertain the geographic origin of the several good quality sapphires herein as these may well be of Sri Lankan (Ceilon) or Burmese origin as well, two known occurrences of commercial quantities of this blue gem. Some of the sapphires are custom cut to fit the design, as in the depicted image, but there are also some very interesting cushion cut and rectangular shaped deep blue sapphires, some of them as hanging pendants in the jewels. Interestingly enough, the use of pending gems was a common practice in 16th century jewellery. Ruby is the red variety of corundum, just as blue sapphire and all other colors, and for some reason Lalique does not use this red variety in his creations. The only reddish stone in this collection is a deep pinkish red tourmaline (see below).

Beryl (Emerald and Aquamarine)

The two most known gem varieties of beryl are emerald (green colored by chromium and/or vanadium) and aquamarine (blue), being emeralds the most coveted in terms of market value. It is curious, though, that there is only one emerald set in the artist's jewels at the Gulbenkian collection and its quality is rather low, resembling the old Egyptian or Austrian gems of the middle ages, meaning that it lacks in the color saturation and transparency of the then popular Colombian emeralds.
As per the blue variety, the aquamarine, there is an outstanding deep greenish-blue color cushion cut gem, weighing several hundred-carats. The low pavilion of this cut stone causes an effect called windowing, meaning that one can see through it. The rather deep and intense color of the aquamarine disguises the effect of the cut that may have been designed to retain as much weight as possible, creating a remarkably large gem. A few more cut aquamarines, of a not so intense color, can also be accounted for in the collection.

Aquamarine and Thistel Flower brooch. René Lalique ca. 1905-06.
© Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

Cockerel diadem. Gold, horn, enamel and amethyst.
René Lalique ca. 1897-98.
© Museu Calouste Gulbenkian


Quartz is one of the most abundant and diversified gem group of all. It is second most abundant mineral in the Earth's crust, after feldspars, and has many gem varieties in various colors, hues and transparencies. Rock crystal, amethyst, citrine, smoky quartz are macrocrystaline varieties, whereas agate, chrysoplase, onyx are microcrystalline. Lalique uses quartz extensively and one of the most interesting examples is a fine quality deep violet amethyst that is set on a rooster head ornament.
A microcrystalline quartz variety gives shape to one of René Lalique most impressive works of art - the Dragonfly-Woman breast ornament. The feminine body of the dragonfly is artistically carved on chrysoprase, a nickel rich green variety of chalcedony. There are more chrysoprase carved stones and polished cabochons in Lalique's jewels at the Gulbenkian collection, leading to the assumption that it may have been on of the artist’s favorites.

Dragonfly-woman breast pin, gold, enamel, moonstone and chrysoprase.
René Lalique ca. 1897-1898. © Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

Precious Opal

The iridescent play-of-color typical of certain opal varieties found keen admirers among Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau artists and René Lalique was no exception. He extensively uses this iridescent colored gemstone in number, as well as in diferent shapes and sizes, taking advantage of the changing colors of the material, ignoring the odd urban mith around the bad luck surrounding opals, a belief that is thought to have emerged from a 1829 Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Anne of Geierstein”. At the end of the nineteenth century, a few Australian opal deposits were already in production, and these are known for their iridescent colors. On the same period, the older deposits in Czerwenitza, in today’s Slovakia, known in the trade as Hungarian opals were still producing up to 1922. The geographic provenance of all the opals used by the artist remains as an interesting research subject for the future, although some are look to bee of Australian provenance, namely the boulder opal in the plaque for eagles and pine trees choker (see image bellow). Apart from the so-called precious opal (with play-of-color) there are also some interesting examples of orangey-yellow fire opal, consistent with the material rediscovered in Mexico in the 19th century.
Plaque for eagles and pine trees choker. Gold, enamel and boulder opal. René Lalique ca. 1899-1901.
© Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

Thistle pendant in gold, glass, custom cut blue
sapphires, diamonds and a pear shaped moonstone.
René Lalique ca. 1898-1900.
© Museu Calouste Gulbenkian


It may have been also the sheen effects of this gem variety of adularia (a gem alkaline feldspar also known as microcline and/or peristerite (a gem plagioclase feldspar ofalbite-oligoclase composition) that got Lalique’s attention. Some moonstones, namely those from Sri Lanka, show a very typical bluish effect on a white semi-transparent to translucent background, known as schiller. In the already illustrated Dragonfly ornament there are several of these cut gems along side with polychrome enamels in the wings, creating a very interesting slightly bluish color effect.
Some moonstones just show a whitish surface sheen effect nad that is the case of the big white translucent cabochon in the Thistle pendant (below) that is set with glass, custom cut sapphires and old brilliant cut diamonds.

Other Colored Gemstones

The above are probably the most important gem species and varieties, besides the biogenic gems dealt with bellow. There are however two other gem materials that deserve mention, namely tourmaline and jade. The first did not gain massive popularity until mid-twentieth century, but Lalique did find some of the stones interesting enough to include them in his creations. The fine reddish-pink tourmaline, known in the trade as rubelite, in the intriguing scarabs brooch is an exceptional example of the use of fine colored tourmalines decades before their time.
Scarabs breast pin. Gold, silver, enamel, enamel glass and reddish-pink tourmaline.
René Lalique ca. 1903-1904. © Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

The second gemstone, jade, is well known from ancient times, particularly in China, and, in the particular case of the jewels in the Gulbenkian collections, it is found as flat greyish green cabochons of nephrite jade (one of the rocks that can use the name "jade" in the trade, the other being jadeite jade). The geographic provenance of these cabochons is yet to be determined.

Biogenic Gem Materials

This is another group of materials in that René Lalique had a particular interest, not only because of their visual properties, but also because he mastered their fashioning technique. Biogenic gem materials are the ones that formed through the activity of living organisms, like mammals (e.g. ivory, bone and horn), molluscs (e.g. pearl and mother-of-pearl), sea turtles (tortoiseshell), trees (e.g. amber, vegetable ivory) and corals, just to mane a few. Some of these were special to the artist and it is hard to say what would be the most remarkable one in this context, but elephant ivory and ox horn are certainly two fair candidates.
Landscape comb. Horn and glass. René Lalique ca. 1899-1900.
© Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

Horn is a fibrous material with interesting thermo-elastic properties, in particular those from the asian ox. The artist was ingenious in working this material with a technique that was new to jewelry at the time, turning the rough horn into translucent orangey brown delicate pieces that served mostly as hair ornaments or combs. There are many examples of this biogenic gem material in Lalique's work demonstrating its capacity to be worked along with other jewelry materials, like gold and enamel glass.
Ivory is a well-known material from the teeth of major mammals, particularly the African elephant and the males of Asian species. Elephant tusks provided workable material in considerable sizes in more efficient manner that the other types of ivory (e.g. walrus, sperm whale, orca, warthog). Its white color, texture and ability to be carved into fine sculptures have captured Lalique’s attention and many of his works depict superb examples of this material, namely human figures, specially women. He mastered the polygraph technique to convert larger sculptures into miniaturised ivory carvings
Pearls were true rarities at the time, particularly those of bigger size and finer lustre, fetching almost obscene prices in high-end jewelry. I is important to mention that these pearls were natural pearls, as the today's abundant cultured pearls became commercially available in large numbers only in the course of the 1920’s. There are not, however, regular shaped pearls in Lalique’s jewels in this collection. Lalique's choices were particularly focused in irregular shaped pearls, known as barroque pearls and a few are used as pendants in brooches and breast pins, pretty much in the fashion of mid 16th century jewelry. The intriguing grasshopper necklace, features a series of baroque pearls of considerable size and interesting quality.

The Grasshopper necklace in ivory, gold and barroque natural pearls. René Lalique ca. 1902-03. © Museu Calouste Gulbenkian

From this short review one may have a gemological picture of what was used by René Lalique in his short period of jewelry production, serving as a window for what was available in the market at his time. These gem materials are in line of what were the main characteristics of the Art Nouveau movement in jewelry, a style that owes much to his master mind and creativity. The value of the retinal impact of the materials supplanted the market value impact of the materials and the use of new "alternative" solutions for color effects and transparencies were of paramount importance. Similar approaches of Lalique's gemstones may be attempted in other museums and private collections in order to achieve a clearer and more reliable picture on the artist's choices as far as materials. One thing is clear: two of the most frequently used materials are not a gemstones, but rather artificial products, glass and enamel, and these could be manipulated in the manufacturing process by the artist which may have inspired him to persue a glasswork carreer right after his short period of jewellery production.

Revised and Edited from: Galopim de Carvalho, R. (2008) "A Gemologist looks at Lalique Jewelry”, Adornment, the Magazine of Jewelry & Related Arts, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 32-37

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