It was a complete series of L’ornement Polychrome by French artist, art historian and publicist Albert Charles Auguste Racinet. The book consists of 100 plates that were published in 10 parts between 1869 and 1873; a second edition of 120 plates, was published in 1875. The inspirational guide brings the archaeological art and polychromy of the past into the present.
As an art historian and an antique jewellery specialist, I knew a collection of this sort was valuable, both monetarily and historically. Buying it was the only option—and I did. I cut a deal with the seller and took my treasure, wrapped in an ordinary plastic bag, home.
When Racinet compiled L’ornement Polychrome, it was an era of discovery, progress and invention. With the construction of the Suez Canal in the 1860s, the journey between Europe and Asia suddenly became much shorter, opening up hitherto inaccessible worlds for many travellers. That same decade saw major archaeological excavations taking place in Egypt, and in Italy at Herculaneum and Pompeii, revealing long-lost artefacts to the European public. Etruscan pieces were brought back to Europe, and interest in the classical, medieval and Renaissance periods saw a strong revival.
The arts were affected significantly by these discoveries, as architects, artists, decorators and jewellers became interested in reviving ancient techniques and motifs, creating pieces that imitated or resembled classical styles. The work of Racinet supplied the needed information on those archaeological arts at the time. With Racinet as creative director, more than 20 distinguished artists contributed to the first volume of L’ornement Polychrome, creating a masterpiece that would prove to inspire many artists and designers of the 19th century.
It certainly inspired me to comb through jewellery archives to find amazing pieces that make L’ornement Polychrome’s wonderful patterns come to life. Every one of Racinet’s prints reveal a deep relationship between jewellery and ornamentation within the same eras, retelling history through patterns and gems.
lithography by f Durin
Pastel green forms the background for an array of swirly Chinese motifs. Like a Miró painting, the lotus flowers, peonies, ribbons, leaves, tea caddies, snuff boxes and paper scrolls float around on the colour. In contrast to the floating motifs on pastel green, the yellow ochre provides a more stable background, where the pink peonies and blue flowers, together with two geometrical Chinese-style