Modern Mythology – Ilias Lalaounis
Over the course of one man’s career an idea became a legacy, where master goldsmiths allow ancient voices to sing new songs. Where a jewellery studio becomes an internationally renowned art-house, and a name becomes a reputation. We present to you the story of designer, sculptor, and historian, Ilias Lalaounis.
In the early 1960’s, Ilias Lalaounis was a 4th generation Greek jeweller working in his family’s business in France. Business was reasonably good at ‘Zolotas Jewellery’, and together with his father and uncle they enjoyed many successes in France, which also lead to some success for them back home in Greece. But the twist of chance and circumstance in this story came one day when a couple of tourists ventured into the family shop. Looking around, they asked “can we see some Greek jewellery? Everybody sells this stuff.” That was the spark that ignited one of the longest-burning torches of creativity and innovation. A torch that would blaze a trail through jewellery, fashion, and the arts, and gild the rich and famous.
His founding premise was simple and avant-garde. He would research these ancient cultures and study their jewellery designs. And he would learn about their art and literature, and about their historical influences. And as he came to understand their artistic expression, he would produce modern jewellery that would be a creative interpretation of ancient Greek designs. As his daughter Maria explains with some humour, the family business had little faith in his new creations, so he shifted gears and started Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery in his late 40’s.
Looking at the collections of Ilias’s work is like skipping from stone to stone down the river of human history. Over the course of his life, Ilias Lalaounis took inspiration from and paid tribute to the art and architecture of 15 different ancient cultures around the world – some advanced and some primitive. He rightly understood, perhaps before anyone else, the commonality of inspiration and the roots of design across all cultures. Ancient art forms from every era all began with what they shared – the same sun, moon, and stars, the same animals, and the same elements. These things were intrinsic to each human culture and prominent in their artwork, though they became stylized in differing ways. The art of jewellery was, for Ilias Lalaounis, a common language around the world and across time. And expressing this language became his focus as a goldsmith – to intertwine the jewel and the woman with historical influences from millennia past, creating an eternal expression and a unique message.
Taking his new designs from the drawing board and producing them in his studio was not as simple as manufacturing contemporary pieces. For these history-inspired designs, Ilias wanted the jewellery he produced to be created in authentic ways. But one of the first problems he encountered in this work was that many of the ancient skill-sets that were used in producing the ancient pieces were lost to time. There were no surviving instructions or traditional methods handed down through the generations from these extinct civilizations. To resolve this challenge, he took his workers to museums to study the jewellery on display so that they could figure out how the intricate and ornately decorated pieces might have been produced, given the tools and technology available at the time. Ilias did not simply focus on the design of the artwork, for him the process of creation was of equal importance. He saw the method of production as an art-form in itself, and critical to the realization of his designs. His revival of ancient goldsmithing techniques became his instrument, and the voice of his creations.
It is for this groundbreaking view, which became a life’s work, that Ilias Lalaounis was inducted as a member of L’ Académie des Beaux-Arts, in France, on 21 February 1990. He remains the only jeweller to be so honoured. During an amazingly prolific career that lasted for more than 50 years he created over 50 jewellery collections comprising more than 17,000 pieces, designed Olympic torches and ceremonial swords, and produced many renowned collections of micro-sculptures and objets d’art.
Almost hidden away from view, set among a scattering of olive trees behind gated walls in an outer suburb of Athens, the Ilias Lalaounis factory stands as a continuing tribute to the ancient skills of goldsmithing. Of the 17,000 pieces Ilias designed, about 10,000 are still in production at this facility and available in their catalogue.
Spread out over four floors, and employing about 80 people the facility is the source of some of jewellery’s most remarkable creations. The goldsmiths working at their benches are all long-term employees, or will be. Many have 30 or 40 years of service at the company, and have become absolute masters of some of the oldest skills used in the profession. Gold chains are meticulously and painstakingly hand woven at the rate of one centimeter per hour. Thin gold wire is twisted, looped, and soldered into precise filigree. Tiny gold beads are created by torch and perfectly hand-set. These highly skilled craftsmen and women openly express their gratitude to work at Lalaounis, and profess the company is an ideal environment for them to exercise their passions and create their art.
On a tour of the various departments in the facility, Maria Lalaounis speaks with energy and enthusiasm for the work they do. She shares her father’s notion of inspiration through history, and is a clear disciple of her father’s belief that ‘every piece of jewellery has a soul and a story to tell’. She explains proudly of some groundbreaking designs of her father’s from the past, and their impact on the art world. And she eagerly shares stories of her current designs and how, for example, a shell found on a beach can be transformed into a ring. Which is another Lalaounis tenet: inspiration can be found everywhere.
Lalaounis Jewellery is sold in the company’s own network of eleven boutiques. Eight of these are in Greece, with international shops located in London, New York, and Qatar. The shops themselves are not decorated with a uniform look, but rather they are individually styled to display the jewellery in a manner that best fits in with the location.
The boutique on Santorini Island sits in the village of Thira, atop the cliff with a westward view that opens out over the caldera below and beyond. Standing in the doorway looking out you can marvel at that iconic Santorini view, seen timeless on pictures, postcards, and social media everywhere. The collapsed volcano which created this ring of small islands is one of the suspected locations of the legendary lost city of Atlantis, and it is visual poetry. The beauty, the magnificence, and the grandeur of this view are virtually unmatched anywhere else in the world as far as geographical vantage points are concerned.
Turning 180 degrees and looking into the shop, the splendour within is no less breathtaking. The narrow shop quickly becomes bright and airy as it lets in the unfiltered afternoon sunlight. The jewellery works on display are showcased in portals along the walls, reminiscent of the buildings themselves on Santorini which are often carved into the mountain rock. What better locale than this famed natural backdrop for the presentation of some of the most beautiful pieces of handmade golden artwork. The jewels and objets d’arts are all new, but it feels equal parts museum and shop inside this gallery. Collections inspired by the Minoan and Byzantine civilizations, among others, are reaching out to the clients, inviting them to wear history around their necks or across their wrists. Enticing them to make that connection with a distant culture that predates tradition.
Over on Mykonos island, the boutique is nestled into a narrow busy street near the harbour. It is larger than the shop in Santorini, but does not receive the same abundance of natural sunlight. Owing to this, tall standalone glass display cases are smartly arranged throughout the interior of the store. The lighting inside is generous and appropriate, allowing the jewels to sparkle and come to life as you move around them. A corner lounge area provides a sense of inviting intimacy amidst the golden works. The Mykonos store, like all Lalaounis locations, employs a minimalist approach to displaying its art. Unlike other retailers, Lalaounis does not seek to overwhelm customers with choices. Instead select pieces are displayed that provide a representation of the many collections available. Shopping in a Lalaounis boutique is a journey of discovery.
In central Athens, at the southern foot of the Acropolis the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum sits on the corner of two tree-lined streets immediately below the famed Parthenon. The four-story building in this tony neighbourhood was the original site of the Lalaounis factory. When production needs outgrew the building, the factory relocated to the outskirts of Athens and the premises were renovated and converted into the present-day museum. Opening to the public in 1993, the museum is run as a non-profit organization and its permanent collection contains over 4000 pieces of jewellery from Lalaounis’s career, and pieces of contemporary art from his private collection.
In addition to showcasing the amazing works of its founder, the museum has become a vehicle for the interconnection of people and art. Youngest daughter, Ioanna, is the curator of the museum and has implemented many programs to this end. An Artist-in-Residence program offers a one-year residency to aspiring young jewellers. Ioanna also runs educational seminars and cultural activities for children, as well as programs on jewelry design and making, gemology, art history, and children’s theatre. When it opened, Lalaounis called the museum his ‘fifth child’. And if the factory is the heart of the Lalaounis empire, the museum is indeed its soul. Walking from floor to floor you can trace the creative path of Ilias’s life and witness the impact his designs have had on the world of fashion and art. It is a magnificent living celebration of a man who created timeless works of historical interpretation.
Ilias Lalaounis passed away in 2013 at the age of 93. The work he began over 50 years ago fittingly lives on via his children. His four daughters, who were once the faces of Lalaounis jewellery as his models, now manage the company. Erudite, insightful, and equally as passionate as their father they are perfectly suited to assume control of the jewellery house they grew up in. Maria is now the creative director of the company and supervises the production facility. Aikaterini directs business operations and public relations in Greece. Ioanna curates the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum in Athens, and Demetra coordinates international operations out of London, England. His granddaughters are now the faces of the company – Lalaounis Jewellery remains a family business.
Curious to know more? Visit www.iliaslalaounis.eu for more information and to see more of Lalaounis’sbreathtaking designs.