René Lalique is one of the foremost jewelry designers of all time. He created naturalistically inspired jewelry and objects of art that were superbly designed and incorporated innovative material. Born in 1860, Lalique began an apprenticeship with the Parisian jeweler Louis Aucoc at the age of 14. Lalique then became a freelance designer and in 1885 took over the workshop of Jules Destape. In 1895, he presented his first collection of Art Nouveau jewelry. Five years later, he exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle where he was elected to the Legion of Honor. In 1909, he turned his attention to making glass until his death in 1945. The company continues making glass today.
René Lalique created jewelry in a strong, sculptural style that combined classicism with the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau. He turned gold into an almost fluid substance and introduced horn, ivory, tortoiseshell, and glass into his design repertoire. This letter opener, or paper knife, is a superb example of his art. It embodies the principles of the Symbolist movement that rejected the advance of science in the modern world, preferring the myths and legends of the past. Creatures such as serpents, owls, bats, and roosters were part of Lalique’s design vocabulary both for their symbolic meanings and their design potential. He masterfully represented them as fierce creatures whose personality could be captured in a jewel.
The rooster, a strong and forceful bird symbolizing the break of dawn because of his early morning calls, became an emblem of watchfulness and vigilance. On the paper knife, only his head and talon are depicted, both out of proportion to the actual bird. Depicted for dramatic graphic effect, the head is too small and the talon too large. The rooster‘s head and talon are connected by the bird‘s backbone which runs down one side of the jade handle while on the opposite side the wattle falls only half way, leaving space for the fingers when holding the paper knife. The horn blade of the knife springs from the bird‘s head as a highly stylized comb, carefully graded to give the effect of the actual comb. The enlarged talon is artfully crafted in silver with gold claws that appear to clasp a polished amethyst. Realistic claws wear rings that are each set with a cabochon amethyst and decorated with a floral design of a daisy, clover, acanthus leaf, or branch with leaves. They are rings that denote rank, worn by bishops or royalty. Because of this designation, a person of title may have ordered this paper knife for his own personal use.
Lalique’s jewelry and objects of art have become icons of the Art Nouveau period, a time when usability was secondary to the artistic significance of a piece. This paper knife is emblematic of the time and of the man who created it and is a strong statement piece for a collector of masterpieces.