Though so much of Italian history is credited to The Romans, the birth of Italian Jewelry starts with the Etruscans around 700 BC. The Etruscans lived in Central Italy, around what is now Montepulciano (and famous for its incredible wine). The birth of Italian Jewelry is saturated in Gold. Taking a lot of indirect influence from Egyptians, who held Gold in the highest regard, Etruscan jewelry was primarily made of thin gold sheets in repousse (method of decorating metals in which parts of the design are raised in relief from the back or the inside of the article by means of hammers and punches), which was then decorated with tiny gold globules through a method called granulation or with designs in gold wire with the method we refer to as filigree. The imagery used in Etruscan jewelry, like in the art of the time, was often drawn from Greek Mythology.
Jewelry in ancient Rome is a fascinating study not only in the styles of the times, but also in the political and social climate. Gold remained the foundation of Roman jewelry. Though early Roman jewelry was much more modest and austere than surrounding Mediterranean cultures, the influx of new ideas and goods from continuous conquests led to a more luxury focused lifestyle. Because of the mixed influence of the surrounding areas and conquered cultures, Jewelers in this era were able to experiment and mesh different methods to create wholly new visions of what jewelry could look like.
In Ancient Rome, Gold primarily marked wealth or conquest. In 361, Roman dictator Titus Malius challenged a Gaul to a single combat and in defeat took his torc. This led to torcs being awarded to soldiers after brave acts in battle and became a distinctive decoration of the elite. Rings and brooches were among the most popular men's jewelry at the time with brooches being used to secure clothing together and the origin of “signet rings,” rings with engraved gems (intaglio) that marked the wearers rank or family crest.
Romans also used amulets, talismans, bracelets, earrings which were used to protect the wearer from evil spirits and curses (evil eyes) There are many examples of scarabs found in Roman areas with figures from as far away as Hispania. Designs imprinted into many of their jewelry showed animals and coiling snakes which symbolized immortality and fertility.
In 215 BCE at the height of the Second Punic War, Lex Oppia, the first of many sumptuary laws, rules and regulations against luxury and Hellenization, was passed by Cato the Elder. This particular law prohibited women from both having their own wealth and showing off their family wealth. Though the law was passed to curb general economic strain, much of it had to do with the excesses of the women at the time and the government's suggestion that men could not keep their own wives spending habits in check. Women were not able to wear more than a half ounce of gold in public.
After the Fall of Rome, jewelry tradition continued, but changed quite a bit. From the 8th century CE, jewelry and gold adornment were now being crafted mainly in cathedral treasuries or imperial courts. The majority of people wore nothing more than religious pieces. The craft of metalworks was largely relegated to monastic workshops used to craft household and everyday items.
By the 11th century, secular jewelers, design houses and craft workshops began to emerge again. Though secular by design, the beautiful pieces produced by these spaces now had both aesthetic and religious meaning. Most rings still were built to name the wearer or as a talisman to ward off bad omens. Brooches reclaimed popularity in round, pentagonal and star shapes - and contained inscriptions on the back to remind the wearer of the religious meaning.
By the renaissance, demand for jewelry had returned thanks in part to the new middle class of Italy. You can see the style represented in some of the painters and sculptors of the time, as now revered artists like Donatello and Botticelli underwent goldsmithing apprenticeships. The upper class of European societies were now back to old habits, with competitions to outdo each other in adornment, something that had not been seen since the fall of the Roman Empire. This created a huge excitement around the work coming out of Italy around the world.
Italian Jewelry as we know it today is thanks to some of the most influential Italian Jewelry designers of the past 150 years - below just barely scratches the surface but is a good place to start if you’re interested in learning more!
1884 - Bvlgari
Founded in Rome in 1884 by a Greek silversmith named Sotirio Bulgari, Bulgari was originally known for its designs in silver. By the 1920s, Bulgari started emulating the classic French styles made fashionable by Boucheron, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1940s that Bulgari embraced the brands heritage as an Italian brand and started incorporating more yellow gold and the now famous Serpenti design and it wasn’t until the 1950s that Bulgari started producing pieces with the vivid cabochon stones we now consider a signature of the brand.
1920s - Mario Buccellati
When Mario Buccellati was only 28, he opened his first store near the famous La Scala opera house in Milan. His debut collection of one-of-a-kind creations made a huge impression on Spanish aristocrats during the 1920 Madrid Exposition, all pieces were sold out. Buccellati’s craftsmanship became recognizable across Europe for its textural gold jewels and intricate silverware. Mario Buccellati was referred to as “The Prince of Goldsmith”, truly the highest praise, considering that he is from Italy - a country where precious metal work can be traced for centuries. The Buccellati Maison continues to capture the spirit and elegance of Renaissance and classicism to this day.
In 1949, Mario Buccellati gained his royal acceptance and fame when Pope Pius XII commissioned Buccellati to create an icon for Princess Margaret. The icon symbolizes the influence of the first visit of a British Royal to Vatican City in hundreds of years. This masterpiece is currently being held at the Chianciano Art Museum in Tuscany, Italy.
1960s - Pomellato
In 1967, Pino Rabolini founded the Pomellato brand. Pomellato is largely credited with introducing the idea of pret-a-porter jewelry - jewelry that isn’t just a status symbol, but something that should be worn and celebrated and changed out day to day depending on your outfit and your mood. Today, Pomellato is known primarily for its chains, rounded edges and use of cabochon colored stones and unusual uses of pave.
Roberto Coin - 1980s
After a successful career as a hotelier, a young Roberto Coin chose to pursue his passion in Vicenza, Italy after spending some time learning from the masters of the craft. In 1977, he established his namesake company where he largely bought and sold pieces that inspired him and by 1984, he was manufacturing 18k gold jewelry primarily for other brands. By 1996, he was ready to build a brand of his own and launched the brand we’re familiar with today.
Coin takes his inspiration from different cultures, nature, dreams and what he calls the echoes of the past and future projections. Coin signs each of his pieces with a small Ruby set on the inside of the piece to ensure it comes in contact with the skin of the wearer. Like the origins of Italian jewelry, this is inspired by the Egyptians, who believed that if a ruby touched a woman’s skin, it would grant her happiness, love and prosperity.
Fast forward to present day, $1.69 billion of jewelry in the US is imported from Italy. Italian jewelry today is still characterized by the expert use of 18k gold, with a distinctly yellow color, alloyed sterling and color glass and stones. There are more than 10,000 companies throughout Italy employing more than 40,000 people.
Interested in learning more? Here at Jack Weir & Sons we’ve spent the last 40 years traveling to Italy and all over the world, curating extraordinary estate jewels. JWS is where the old world meets the new world. Celebrate life, preserve history, discover your own priceless heirloom jewel. We are extremely grateful for our clients and the ability to help people to celebrate their special moments through one-of-a-kind jewelry. To share that gratitude and our strong family values, we chose to partner with Baby2Baby. So far, from November 2021-October 2022 we've donated $39,018. A portion of every sale goes towards children living in poverty to provide them with diapers, clothing, and all the basic necessities that every child deserves.
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