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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

A Brief History of Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum in Athens

What is the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum?

The Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum is an extensive collection of jewellery-maker and designer Ilias Lalaounis that was founded in 1993 to preserve his legacy as an artist and bring a significant collection to public view.

Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum

Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum History

Ilias Lalaounis was born in 1920 in the heart of Athens, a (precious) stone’s throw away from the Acropolis. Although his was the fourth generation of a family, originally from Delphi, of goldsmiths and watchmakers, he initially chose to study economics and business at the University of Athens. But in 1940, he was thrust into the leadership of his family’s jewellery firm Zolotas, founded by his uncle Euthymios Zolotas in 1895.

Lalaounis had always loved and been fascinated by Greek music and art, and had received training in design and draughtsmanship from the Greek painter Alexandros Alexandrakis. In the 1950s, as CEO, Lalaounis forged a brave new vision for the family firm as Greece struggled to recover from the devastation of the Second World War and the subsequent Civil War. He took his inspiration from Greece’s rich tradition of jewellery, which can be seen in museums across Athens, with an especially wide-ranging collection displayed at the National Archaeological Museum. Lalaounis employed the latest technology while mastering and continuing traditional techniques such as granulation, filigree, hand-weaving and hand-hammering.

Lalaounis’s forward-thinking yet classical approach empowered his rise to become one of the world’s most famous jewellery designers. He created custom pieces for Greek and Hollywood stars such as Melina Mercouri and Sophia Loren. Founded in 1993 to preserve his legacy, the museum named after him possesses a collection of over 4,000 pieces of jewellery and micro-sculpture, all produced by Lalaounis between 1940 and 2000.

The peoples who have inhabited this part of the world have always loved their bling. Many of the earliest, Neolithic human remains in Greece were found alongside fine collections of jewellery; worn during their lives or intended to guarantee wealth and happiness in the afterlife. The ancient Greeks elevated primitive craftsmanship to refined levels, creating jewellery from gold, silver, and precious stones. To modern eyes the resulting styles are at once instantly familiar and provocatively arresting.

One of the early pieces that helped establish Lalaounis’s reputation was a special bracelet he designed to be worn by Melina Mercouri in Jules Dassin’s 1962 film Phaedra. Inspired by art from the Minoan period (the civilization that flourished on the island of Crete 5,000 years ago), Lalaounis created a pair of entwined snakes to adorn Mercouri’s arm. If you’re keen to track this beguiling item down, you’ll find it collected alongside other Lalaounis commissions for the stars of stage and screen, most of which draw their inspiration from ancient, Byzantine or Renaissance art and are some of the most striking pieces in his collection.

Although everything in the Lalaounis museum is modern, all of his collections reflect various periods and movements of Greek and European jewellery that Lalaounis studied throughout his life, from ‘The Dawn of Art’ to the Hellenistic and Byzantine eras. The tradition of jewellery-making in the building continues, with a residency programme where you can watch a guest jeweller busy at work on the top floor, perhaps on their way to becoming the next Lalaounis.

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