René Lalique has long been considered the most brilliant and original French Art Nouveau designer of jewelry and glass. His lifelong study of nature in drawings and photographs including wildflowers and rare floral species, animals and insects such as swans, bats, birds, and dragonflies provided the unusual repertory for his jewelry and accessories. In place of traditional gemstones, Lalique developed a technique of incorporating non-precious stones including opals with enamel on materials such as ivory and horn that changed the look of nineteenth-century jewelry.
Among the jewelry types that Lalique designed was the comb. This hair accessory was especially popular at the turn of the century when women wore their hair long or piled up on their heads which necessitated some kind of pin or comb to hold their hair in place. Non-coincidentally, combs were an important feature of Japanese fashion.
Lalique included nine large tortoiseshell, ivory, and horn combs in his display at the 1898 Salon which were reported to be very Japanese in flavor. One comb with a fish theme particularly attracted the attention of Raitif de la Bretonne (Jean Lorrain), who wrote about “the large fins and the head with gaping gills…whose twisted body resembles images in Japanese prints. The animal arches its back and twists in the transparent horn captured in the vitrified lacquer...It is the subject of the decoration itself, the blue-green life of water frozen in the material of the comb.”
This description corresponds closely to a Lalique drawing in Cooper-Hewitt’s collection, Comb Design with “Flying Fish” Motif, a spectacular watercolor and gouache study on paper. (The design has characteristically darkened over the years due to a coating--possibly of resin--to make the paper translucent to heighten the visual impact.) In the drawing, the fantastic fish leaps out of the water with mouth open and fins flaring causing the water to fly up around it and fall through its curving body. This design might date from 1898 or more likely to 1904-06 when Lalique created a number of jewelry pieces using the fish motif.
In an effort to identify the unusually dramatic fish depicted in the comb design, the image was shared with Smithsonian curators at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History who claim that no similar fish existed and that it was probably the product of Lalique’s prodigious imagination.