For Marie-Claude Lalique, the Glass Menagerie Is Her Work, Her Life and Her Family

updated 01/11/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1982 01:00AM

Marie-Claude Lalique has always lived in a menagerie of crystal, surrounded by swans, panthers, peacocks and dragonflies fashioned from the finest of glass. As she grew up, she began to realize where her transparent animal friends were coming from—her own family's famous crystal works in the Alsatian village of Wingen-sur-Moder. Four decades later Marie-Claude, 46, runs what is now a worldwide multimillion-dollar operation from Lalique's headquarters and showcase store on swank Rue Royale in Paris. She took over when her father, Marc, died unexpectedly of heart failure in 1977. "It's always been a family affair," allows the third-generation crystal scion. "I see things the way my father did and my grandfather before him."

Marie-Claude's grandfather, René, made the name Lalique synonymous with beautiful objets d'art. Starting as an apprentice to a silversmith, he switched to jewelry-making in 1894 and set up shop on Paris' elite Place Vendôme. One of his first customers, actress Sarah Bernhardt, became an avid collector of his glass brooches and hair combs featuring animals and nude women. During the 1920s the glass master began to create larger pieces—among them a fish fountain for the city of Marseilles and crystal bathtubs, doors, statues and decorative wall panels for the liner Normandie. Lalique creations were favorites of European royalty. He designed an entire crystal table service for Queen Elizabeth's father, George VI, and filled the Duchess of Windsor's order for glasses engraved with her husband's crest.

Taking over the company in 1945, Marc Lalique dramatically expanded the company's output by modernizing its factories. He added the presidential likes of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Richard Nixon to the list of dedicated Lalique patrons—and designed many remarkable pieces himself, including the famous frosted bottle of two embracing doves for Nina Ricci's perfume L'Air du Temps.

Today Cristal (the French spelling) Lalique is sold in 110 countries and has 600 outlets in the U.S. alone, including Bloomingdale's in New York, Bullock's Wilshire in Los Angeles and Marshall Field in Chicago. The firm currently offers more than 800 creations, ranging from an ashtray that sells for $65 to a crystal dining room table base priced at $27,800. The amount of labor required for each object is daunting. A simple water pitcher, for example, may require a week's work from 15 artisans. As Lalique's only designer as well as its corporate chief, Marie-Claude oversees the production of every item. "My schedule," she says with a sigh, "is nonstop."

She has spent a lifetime preparing for the role. Growing up in Paris, she entered the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs at 17 and majored in theater design. In 1956 she began working for her father, wrapping packages and ironing tablecloths for window displays. With his encouragement, she tried her hand at glass blowing and designing. It quickly became impossible to tell whether a piece was designed by Marie-Claude or Marc. "We had a close collaboration until he died," she says. "It was a rare combination of tenderness and work."

These days Marie-Claude, who is divorced and has no children, lives in the house that Rene built in 1905 on the Right Bank. There, a maid helps dust her collection of 300 perfume bottles created by her grandfather. "If I had a husband and children, I couldn't do everything I do now," Marie-Claude explains. "I am a perfectionist. You have to choose." Carrying on the family art has seemed the right choice, particularly when two American collectors, a married couple, recently wrote to tell her what they had named their new daughter: Cristal Lalique.

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