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René Lalique and Calouste Gulbenkian: friends for life. “Only the best is good enough for me”.

René Lalique and Calouste Gulbenkian: friends for life. “Only the best is good enough for me”.

In the last exhibition room at the end of the corridors of Lisbon Gulbenkian Museum there is a special collection of small artefacts beautiful enough to be amazed!

“Our sadness on losing a very dear friend is deepened by the profound sorrow we must always feel when a great man leaves us. He stands with the greatest names of all time in the history of art, and his very personal skills and outstanding imagination will be admired by the elite of the future.” Calouste Gulbenkian, businessman and patron of the arts, July 1945.

The name Lalique evokes the brilliance of jewellery, the wonder of transparency, and the brilliance of crystal. Before it became a brand name, it was the name of a man, an artist of genius, René-Jules Lalique and of his heirs who shared his creative flame.

René Lalique (1860-1945) and Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) shared the experience of a time marked by the fascinating transition of the so-called “Belle Époque” – with its particular end of the century spirit, present mainly on the remarkable set of Art Nouveau works. Both men were tied by friendship and mutual consideration, well evidenced in the words of the Collector: “My admiration for his unique work increased throughout the fifty years our friendship lasted… I am proud to own, I believe, the largest number of Lalique’s works…”.

Between 1899 and 1927 Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) acquired eighty of Lalique’s works of art, and amassed the largest collection of his original jewelry pieces in existence. He is noted for saying “Only the best is good enough for me,” in reference to his vast hoard of high quality art.

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955) is well-known amongst Armenians. Mr. Gulbenkian was one of the most influential figures in the development of the global oil industry in the early 20th century. Born into a prominent and wealthy Armenian family in 1869, Gulbenkian received his early education in Constantinople (Istanbul), and went on to Marseille and London, specialising in engineering with a degree from King’s College. As a young man, Gulbenkian explored the development of oil in Baku in the Russian Empire (Azerbaijan today), as well as in Mesopotamia in the Ottoman Empire (modern Iraq). In 1927 he settled in Paris, where his house at 51 avenue d’Iéna became famous for his collection of books, coins, manuscripts, paintings, statues and other objets d’art. He also became a private benefactor to the Armenian community across the world.

In 1942 Gulbenkian left France for Portugal where he remained until his death in 1955. In his will he left his collection – a unique mixture of Eastern and Western art – and almost his entire fortune to a foundation to be headquartered in Lisbon and to bear his name. He wanted his Foundation to reflect his interests in arts, science, education and social welfare and told his primary trustee that it should benefit not just Armenian causes but ‘all humanity’. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was established in Lisbon in 1956.

“Gulbenkian was a frequent visitor of Lalique’s atelier and residence near the Champs-Elysées . The Lalique collection in Lisbon contains pieces that were fashioned between 1899 and 1927: diadems and combs; necklaces and chokers; brooches and bracelets. It showcases the artist’s flair for pairing opals, moonstones and chrysoprase with diamonds, sapphires and aquamarines.

The ensemble of 82 pieces show off their sensuous lines and are historic documents in themselves: a number of them featured in the Exposition Universelle (1900) while others adorned some of the greatest female stars of the period, such as Sarah Bernhardt. (“René Lalique and Calouste Gulbenkian : A Golden Friendship by Philippe Bouasse).

Calouste Gulbenkian’s commissioning of 145 jeweled objects made him Lalique’s major patron from 1895 until about 1912. Free of financial concern and able to design at will, Lalique entered the most creative period of his jewelry career. Gulbenkian collection today is the biggest repository of Lalique’s art.