The Greek goldsmith, Ilias Lalaounis (b.1920 – d.2013) began his jewellery career as an apprentice for his uncle, Xenophone Zolotas. He studied law at the University of Athens, before his passion for jewellery conquered. From 1940 to 1968 Lalaounis worked in his uncle’s workshop designing and developing his own distinctive style.
Jewellery Maker Profile: Ilias Lalaounis
In 1957 he exhibited his first collection of at the Thessaloniki International Fair. The collection displayed revolved around Greek archaeological jewellery. Studying extensively in museums, Lalaounis’s work is heavily inspired by the jewellery and art of Greece’s ancient past. He admitted: “All my various collections have one common denominator, which is some idea, some design, some technique derived from the art of Greece”. The Hellenistic and Minonea Mycenaean periods informed the foundation of his designs, yet throughout his career he explored other cultures’ motifs. For the opening of his shop in Tokyo he unveiled a collection inspired by Japanese art, he also explored ancient Celtic jewellery and was commissioned in 1976 by Empress Farah of Iran to create a series inspired by Persian art. This collection was displayed in the imperial palace of Tehran.
In 1969 he founded his own firm Greek Gold – Ilias Lalaounis S.A. in his home town, Athens. He soon expanded, opening a branch in Paris at 364 Rue Sainte Honore and in 1979 he opened another shop on 5th Avenue, New York City.
He admitted that: “I concentrated on getting to know better the work of ancient goldsmiths”. An ardent believer in the importance of craftsmanship he founded the Greek Jewellers Association and the Goldsmith’s Union. In his workshops he encouraged and practiced reviving ancient gold working techniques, from filigree, granulation, hand weaving and hammering. He worked predominantly in 22k or 18k gold, with few pieces including gemstones.
In 1980 he was invited to lecture at the Smithsonian Institute together with an exhibition of his Achilles Shield Collection at the National Museum of American History. Four years later, he published ‘Metamorphoses’ a book documenting nineteen of his collections and explaining his personal philosophy that infuses each creation.
During his career Lalaounis was recognised for his in-depth historical study of ancient jewellery techniques and art inspired collections of contemporary jewellery. In 1986 he became a corresponding member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France and also a Grand Archon of the Ecumenical Pariarchate of Constantinople. Two years later he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. A year after the opening of the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum, in 1995 he became a knight of the Order of the Legion of Honour in France and in 1999 he was honoured by his home city, with a medal of the City of Athens.
His contribution to jewellery was extensive. He managed to straddle the divide between commercial success as a designer and academic respect as a scholar. Being both as an authority in the historical study of ancient civilisations, and as a pioneer in contemporary jewellery. His revivalist attitude merged the old with the new to create distinctive, timeless jewellery.
Retiring in 1998, his business is now run by his four daughters, Aikaterini, Demetra, Maria and Ioanna.
Glory of Byzantium
Every Lalaounis piece is steeped in history. Their designs are inspired by the glory and majesty of past empires and eras, yet maintain an understanding for the modern woman. Predominantly formed from 18k or 22k yellow gold, the malleability of the age-old material is fully explored to create pieces that are enduringly wearable.
Recent collections include the Helen of Troy, Glory of Byzantium and Nubia collections all of which feature beautifully crafted goldwork. Hammered and intricately granulated bangles, necklaces and earrings feature only a few gemstones, mostly in the ancient cabochon cut. For example a gem-set suit including a broad bib collar necklace set with emeralds, sapphires and rubies, a ring and earrings that could have stepped out of a byzantine mosaic, sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2018 for 16,250 USD exceeding its estimate of 6000-8000 USD.
Lalaounis’ keen eye for proportion modernised ancient forms, transforming stiff torques and broad bib collar necklaces like those preserved in museums, into chic and wearable jewellery that defy the passing of time. Like King Midas, everything he touched turned to gold.