They're a bit like watches: the finished items are so perfect, they make it look as if it’s all really simple. What goes in to creating them – experience, knowledge, craftsmanship – only becomes apparent when you take a look inside the Lalique factory. However, you have to travel a few kilometres before you reach Wingen- sur-Moder, a village in the Northern Vosges that takes you well away from the spruced-up main route through Alsace. There are hardly any tourist attractions in this neck of the woods.
At least there weren’t until a few years ago, when things changed at Lalique. In 2008, the traditional brand was on the brink of closing down. An Indian investor had a preliminary contract. Rumours went around that he wanted to close the unprofitable plant and have the goods produced in his home country. The workers, glass specialists often for generations, feared for their livelihoods. They mounted the barricades, the trade unions desperately looked for solutions, and the government even sent a minister.
THE RESCUE OPERATION
Around this time, the Swiss entrepreneur Silvio Denz expressed his interest in the perfume branch of Lalique. However, this was only available with the entire brand, i.e. including the factory – and only if Denz would hurry: thanks to a clause in the preliminary contract with the Indian, there was a window of a few days in which something could be done with the help of the trade unions and the minister.
“I didn’t have time to visit the factory,” says Denz as he guides René Beyer through the unfathomable expanse of the site. “I knew the factory was in a run-down state, that many of the machines dated back to the 1940s. But the price was fair, and I believed in the future of this brand because it has a great past.” Denz signed the contract, explained his vision to the relieved workers, and set about the renovation. Six months later, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, the global economy collapsed, nobody was ordering luxury products any more and Lalique was stuck with the goods. For almost a year, Denz paid the 250 workforce out of his own pocket.
A MUST FOR THE BUCKET LIST
The 67-year-old smiles briefly before taking a glass panther from a cooling rack and describing how the blank is passed through about forty pairs of hands and four quality controls, and is polished, decorated and engraved on countless enigmatic machines, until somewhere in the world under a spotlight the finished object comes to life in the way that Lalique creations do.
Denz’s plan worked out, despite the financial crisis, despite Covid: Today, the Lalique Group has a turnover of around 200 million francs. Demand far exceeds production capacity, with delivery times of up to ten months. And the remote Wingen-sur-Moder has become a firm fixture on the bucket list of international gourmet tourists. Denz is especially pleased about this. Not only because the rooms at Villa René Lalique are booked out for months and the restaurant’s two Michelin stars attract an inquisitive, wealthy clientele. But rather because people are once again interested in the life and work of René Lalique, the legendary ‘sculptor of light’, whose artistic legacy Denz so prudently guides into the future as a kind of ‘guardian of the grail’ – with a depth of knowledge that amazes even René Beyer.
“I BELIEVED IN THE FUTURE
OF THIS BRAND BECAUSE IT HAS
A GREAT PAST.”
As a lover of exquisite handcrafted items, he enjoys Silvio Denz’s expert explanations just as much as the atmosphere of this factory, which reveals a new secret behind every door. In the “Elephant Room”, for example, crooked-looking chest-high formations are taking shape: kilns that are later used for special firing processes. The potters spend a total of nine months building such a structure from special Bordeaux clay, which will be in use for just 45 days before it cracks and has to be disposed of. “It is incredibly impressive how everything here is created by hand and how much is not written down anywhere, but only exists in the mind’s eye of these workers, who take all the time they need,” René Beyer enthuses. “And in the end, all the little steps result in an object that could not be made better or more beautifully.”
There’s one room that it’s almost impossible to drag Beyer away from: it definitely resembles a watchmaker’s workshop in here. The workbenches are littered with extremely fine tools, and some of the work is carried out under a magnifying glass. When a worker gently hammers on a stud, it’s more like stroking it: in a mould for a vase with bird motifs, he’s breathing life into an animal’s eye. In another room, a gigantic chandelier is being hoisted, an order from a hotel in the USA. Price point: 250,000 francs. In the hall behind them, the men and women in their waterproof aprons and rubber boots look like they’ve come from a fish market: these are the best artisan cutters in France, who conjure up delicate sculptures from unshaped pressed glass under running water. No template or sketch, just a vision in their mind’s eye.
“WITH LALIQUE, THE TERM
‘MANUFACTURE’ TAKES ON A
WHOLE NEW DIMENSION.”
“We want to remain completely independent,” says Silvio Denz. “That’s why we produce even the smallest tools ourselves.” There’s an air of pride around the otherwise reserved, quiet entrepreneur. He hands René Beyer a heavy crystal decanter and tells him to hold it by its stopper, a simple cylinder: incredibly, the ‘plug’ holds fast – it was made individually for this bottle, just like all other stoppers for all other carafes. “With Lalique, the term ‘manufacture’ takes on a whole new dimension,” René Beyer enthuses.
And we ask Silvio Denz when he intends to add a watch company to his portfolio; we don’t think the idea is that far-fetched. He shakes his head with a grin: “We’ll stick to what we’re good at. I love watches, but I don’t know enough about their production.” Okay, we think to ourselves: 15 years ago, Silvio Denz knew nothing about glass and crystal production either.
Seven questions for Lalique boss and entrepreneur Silvio Denz.
“QUALITY TAKES TIME”
You’re constantly on the move: what’s your biggest trick for saving time?
I try to bundle my time efficiently by arranging appointments so that I can avoid having to zigzag back and forth from Zurich to Paris to Bordeaux. And the rest of the time, I don’t have a schedule.
What activity makes you forget the time?
When I’m with my two granddaughters. They turn one in November.
What takes far too long for you?
A new project. Decision-making processes at brand partners are often fairly long. When you have ideas, you want to get started and realise them quickly.
If you could travel back in time, where would you beam yourself to?
I would travel to the time after the First World War, to Paris, in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, Art Deco. I imagine this time to be similar to the time post-Covid: you want to forget the dark years and get back to travelling, enjoying, living.
Which historic personality would you most like to meet?
René Lalique, of course – preferably on a journey on the Orient Express: the ornate glass decorations in the legendary train are considered some of his most important works.
When does someone who has so many projects on the go at the same time take time to relax?
In summer, when I know that the factory is closed and my people are on holiday. That makes it easier for me to relax too. Last August, I spent ten days with winemaker friends in Napa Valley.
If you could turn time forwards, what would you look at?
The Villa Florhof is a dream come true for me – a hotel with a charming garden in the middle of Zurich! We have similar plans to the Villa René Lalique; we want to bring the first floor up to the highest culinary level. In the garden, however, we will be serving down-to-earth dishes. We had been hoping to open in 2024, but it will probably be 2025: quality takes time.
INDULGE AND DREAM
Wingen-sur-Moder is around three-and-ahalf hours’ drive from Zurich, or just under an hour past Strasbourg in the hills of the Northern Vosges. These three highlights are particularly worthwhile:
Rarely have we visited a museum that recounts the story of a century, trends and social dreams in such a modern, accessible way – through flacons, vases, glass and crystal artefacts. The spotlight is on René Lalique and the three Fs that inspired him: fauna, flora, femmes.
VILLA RENÉ LALIQUE
René Lalique’s home, built in 1920, was restored to the highest standards in 2015 and reopened as a boutique hotel (Relais & Châteaux) with six exceptional rooms. The adjoining building plus restaurant (two Michelin stars) and exquisite wine cellar was designed by Mario Botta.
CHÂTEAU HOCHBERG BY LALIQUE
Silvio Denz was able to acquire the 19th-century country house from the Catholic Church. Tastefully renovated, it is now resplendent as a four-star hotel with 15 individual, bright rooms, upscale cuisine and surprisingly moderate prices. It is located in a park directly opposite the Musée Lalique.