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Is this work unique? A ‘shakudo’ ring by Alexis Falize

 

A highly unexpected jewel has come to light by the distinguished French jeweller Alexis Falize.  The fact that he fully embraced Japanese techniques as well as ornamental motifs is well known, and demonstrated in his most characteristic works featuring scenes drawn from Hokusai’s Manga translated into cloisonné enamelling to decorate his jewellery. Evidence that he produced such works as early as 1867 has already been published.

The astonishing feature of this gold mounted ring is that it appears to be decorated with shakudo, a technique adopted by Japanese craftsmen traditionally composed of an alloy of copper and gold, pickled to form a black patination,  and inlaid with metals such as copper, silver or gold, the darkened material constituting the background to the decorative motif.

On analysis with an Xray machine, the composition of the ring has been discovered to be blackened steel instead of copper, indicating that the craftsman who carried it out had seen works decorated with shakudo and had attempted to emulate it, without the knowledge of its specific components. This in itself begs the question, when did Alexis Falize have the opportunity to access such works from Japan?

As is well known, Japan had been closed to the rest of the world for centuries, and when it finally opened up to trade in the 1850’s, its art and culture were a revelation to the Western world. However it was only in 1867 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris that a Japanese pavilion revealed the multitude of objects that inhabited and enhanced the lives of its population, the selection of works being made by the Japanese themselves. The exhibits incorporated not only an astounding range of materials, but also decorative techniques that were entirely new to the public that visited the Fair.

P.-A. Rémy, in his review of the section devoted to ‘ L’Exposition des Machines – Le Japon’ in L’Illustration of 1867 (Vol.II) describes this rich array of exhibits with evident wonderment: ‘le dessin sur papier de riz, la peinture sur tissus, la dorure sur soie, l’écaille semée de perles, la laque, les métaux incrustés’…It is tempting to assume that amongst these inlaid metals were ‘menuki’, the sword ornament fittings decorated with shakudo that were either applied as decorative panels or designed to encircle the hilt of the weapon. So admired were these precious fittings in Japan that noble families collected them in their own right from the eighteenth century onwards, prompting the craftsmen who made them to create them as works of art. Such collections, and most especially those that included ‘rings’ of oval form to accommodate the flattened hilt, were brought to my attention by the Japanese works of art specialist Malcolm Fairley. Such examples were for example created by the Ayanokōji, a little-known group of metalworkers who took their name from the district of the same name in Kyoto, where they worked in the mid-eighteenth century. They specialised in minute historical scenes in which well-known events, recognisable buildings, and hunting scenes with falcons, were featured.

The surface afforded by the continuous band that forms Falize’s ring is used to full advantage by depicting a highly animated boar hunting scene.  Although this subject might be assumed to be rooted in European artistic traditions, the practice of boar hunting was also known in Feudal Japan.  The intricately detailed frieze represents the chase of the hounds  (highlighted in white gold), the boar (carried out in yellow gold with a white gold tusk), against a landscape revealing minutely rendered bushes,  leaf laden trees, and a wooden fence.  The craftsmanship is considerable and indicates that a great deal of experimentation with the technique would have taken place beforehand. The fact that it emphatically bears the early mark of Alexis Falize (registered in 1841) demonstrates how proud he must have been of this work, and rightly so since it is apparently unprecedented in his oeuvre.