From the olive-fringed vineyards of Tuscany to the crystal clear waters of the Amalfi Coast, Italy is one of the most enchanting countries in the world, famous for its contributions to art, fashion, history and culture. And of course, how could we forget its gelato, its pizza and its pasta?
A country associated with luxury, it won’t come as a surprise that Italian jewellery is a cut above the rest. One of the world’s most well-known Gold jewellery producers, with over 10,000 companies and 40,000 employed in the trade, Italy is home to numerous jewellery companies and has one of the world’s most renowned jewellery houses - Bulgari. Plus, Italy has many bejewelled jewellery traditions that we just need to share!
Little History of Italy
It wouldn’t be a jewellery around the world blog if we didn’t dive into the country's fascinating individual history.
Italy was home to arguably the most well-known ancient empire in the world - the Roman Empire, originating in 27BCE. The Roman empire was an incredibly powerful Christian nation with huge military strength. Culturally, the Roman empire was astronomical, with a wealth of amazing Latin literature texts produced, including poets like Ovid and Vergil.
Ancient Rome, Giovanni Paolo Panini, c.1757, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Italy that we recognise today was actually a range of Papal governed states. Unlike the neighbouring countries of France, Spain and England in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Italy was solely run by the Pope rather than a monarchy.
Italy’s geographical placement in central Europe meant that it had well-traversed Christian and Ottoman trade routes, this meant that it was a hodgepodge of culture and knowledge which is especially shown in Venice.
The Doge Palace Venice (A fabulous example of Ottoman Christian architecture), Source - Frans Van Heerden Pexels
Even though Italy was devastated by the Black Death in the 13th and 14th century, it quickly grew to being the centre of the Renaissance, impacting the whole of Europe. From Michelangelo to Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci to Titian, the artistic Italian Renaissance was one of the finest contributions to global and specifically western culture and civilisation. This was fostered by the wealth, power and influence of the Roman Catholic church.
Last Judgement Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo, 1536-1541, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Of course, like most European countries during the Renaissance, Italy was subject to a few wars with its neighbouring countries and within its own Papal states. In the 17th century, Italy had further artistic and scientific achievements with the literal astronomical discoveries of Galileo and the flourishing of Baroque in art, furniture and architecture. Many famous Baroque paintings are known for their dark and comedic subject matter. Especially regarding the latter for this infamous painting by Guisseppe Arcimboldo.
Painting of Emporer Rudolf II of Vertumnus (Roman God of the Seasons, Plants and Fruit), Guisseppe Arcimboldo, c.1590, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Despite these advancements, Italy was further ravaged by plague and disease, meaning that it did not meet the economical height that it once was. In fact, by the late 18th century, Italy was considered a weaker political power and was thus conquered by Napoleon and the French army. After Napoleon was defeated, Italy entered its restoration period (1815-1835), where it became the country of Italy that we know and love today.
During the early 20th century, Italy was overtaken by the Italian Fascist Movement led by Benito Mussolini. The Fascist sleek and imposing design aesthetic mirrored its oppressive military agenda and were a complete u-turn from the fancy intricacies of Italy’s former centuries. Yet, after World War II, the country was left destitute in the economy and national pride. The Italian general election in 1948 was a landslide victory for the Christian democrats, establishing the Republic of Italy and a profound economic boom.
The Palazzo della Civilta Italiana (A symbol of fascism), c.1942, Source - Wikimedia Commons
The history of Italy, especially its artistic history has always been of interest to people around the world, and Italy quickly became an artistic and foodie hotspot. Italy’s creative legacy has trickled down into its jewellery and fashion, a history we further unpack below.
Italian Jewellery History and Traditional Italian Jewellery
Italy’s jewellery history is as bedazzling and illustrious as the history of its country. Italy is famous for its impact on Gold jewellery, including immaculate and finely detailed high carat Gold chains, characterful pendants and intricate mosaics.
Ancient Italian jewellery dates back to the Etruscan civilisation, one of the most influential movements on antique jewellery history. We have actually written a fascinating blog post already on Etruscan and Archeological revival jewellery.
The jewellery of ancient Rome was lavish and expensive, incorporating the perfected finely-tuned skills of the Etruscans with the doctrine and heavily embellished style of the Roman Catholic church. Ancient Roman jewellery incorporated the styles of Europe, Egypt, North Africa, and the Orient. A combination of cultural influences was believed to reflect its dominant status and overpowering wealth. Ancient Rome’s wealth meant that it had first pick of precious gemstones and all of their pieces were lavished in Gold.
Ancient Rome Gold Coin Necklace, Early 3rd Century, Source - Wikimedia Commons
The ancient Romans were frankly, obsessed with themselves, so wearing over the top jewels as an upper-class person was the norm. Many of these jewels were carved with portraits of Roman emperors and mythological figures, which added a soupçon of hubris to every outfit.
Fragment of a Floor Mosaic of Ktsis, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cornelian Intaglio of Octavian (Julius Caesar), 44-30 BCE, Source - J. Paul Getty Museum
Renaissance Italian jewellery was also exuberant and excessive. The artists that we know and love were also trained as Goldsmiths. Wealthy patrons would fund these artistic talents, and it was believed that they were performing God’s work by creating beautiful things. With this in mind, the jewels that were created were large, brash, glittering and heavily weighted with its religious merits. One of the most influential families that funded this were the De Medici family. Cosimo de Medici, in particular, was known to have one of the most impressive and private collections of jewellery in the entire world. Just look at these Pearls and that table cut Diamond ring and Signet ring of Eleanor Toledo!
Portrait of Eleanor Toledo (wife of Cosimo I of Medici), Agnolo di Cosimo, c.1545, Source - Wikimedia Commons
The Italians were known for crafting incredible and meticulously detailed Gold chains. Italy’s illustrious chain industry dates back to its ancient origins with braided chains found in archaeological sites of ancient Ur and Uppsala. The interlocking links that are a characteristic of chains were invented later as jewellery making sophisticated. There are many different types of Italian chains including Figaro, Spiga, Venetian and Anchor chains. It is likely that these were invented not just because the Italian Goldsmiths were very talented but also to glamourise and embellish Catholic rosaries. No matter the intention of its craft, Italian Gold chains have cemented themselves as being renowned for their delicacy and durability.
Italian Gold and Pearl Rosary, c.1800-1867, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
So, one of the most intriguing parts of Italian jewellery history is Southern Italian talismans. A myriad of collectable folk charms was crafted and widely collected amongst tourists, these were believed to possess talismanic properties and date back to Italy’s pagan history. Let’s take a look at what these are:
The Cimaruta is an Italian folk charm that was believed to be worn by witches. The cimaruta has many small apotropaic charms attached, derived from Christian symbolism with each piece representing a branch of rue, a flowering medicinal herb. Cimarutas are generally known amongst southern Italy with each individual charm differing depending on the location.
Mano and Mano Cornuto Figa
The mano and mano-cornuto figa are widely collected in antique jewellery. In actual fact, these figas are traditional obscene gestures, with the word “figa” itself Etruscan slang for female genitalia. In ancient times, these figas were worn as an incantation to the Goddess of fertility, and they were made from Coral and Silver, two materials tied to the Goddess of the Moon and Goddess of the Sea. The manocornuto figa is very similar to the rock and roll gesture, and was actually originally used to ward off the devil.
Antique Mano Cornoto Figa, Source - Lillicoco Sold
The Italian Horn
Also known as a “Cornicello”or “Cornetto” (and no, we aren’t talking about the ice cream!), the Italian horn is a chilli-shaped talisman that was worn to protect against the evil eye and promote fertility and virility. The Italian horn can be crafted from Gold, Silver, Plastic, Bone, Terracotta or Coral, and although often worn by men, it can also be added to car and house interiors. It is believed that the Italian Horn dates back to the Greek and Roman mythological symbol of the cornucopia.
Large Victorian Gold Coral "Cornicello" Pendant, Source - Lillicoco
A cutesy symbol, a Coccinella is a ladybird charm that was traditionally seen as a symbol of luck. The coccinella is common throughout Italy today.
Perhaps one of the more unusual traditional Italian folk charms, a Gobbo is a little hunchback man charm wearing a dress suit and top hat. Like other talismanic charms, Gobbo’s were believed to help dispel malevolent forces and bring luck to the wearer. In fact, it is believed that Gobbos’ can specifically help better a person’s fortunes, so they are often seen as gambling charms.
Italy was a central location for the Grand Tour, a must-have trip for any young gentleman who wanted to learn more about the world and expand his learning. This meant that Italian charms like these and other Italian jewels were bought by British gentleman as gifts to their beloved, mothers or sisters. Owning these jewels were also a sign of learning and wealth. This also was an opportunity for Italian jewellers to make some money and create pieces that would appeal to the British eye, this often meant glamourising their history like including mythological deities, and incorporating ancient techniques like micromosaic features.
The reason as to why Italian jewellery was so amazing and so highly respected was due to the powers of the Roman Catholic church. Roman Catholicism dominated Western Europe in the Renaissance and well into the 18th and 19th centuries, meaning that it was the centre for money and wealth. The Roman Catholic church had a hoard of goldsmithing workshops for talented artisans so they could learn and hone their craft. These workshops would create glittering jewels for the clergy, the powerful families of Italy and even monarchies abroad. This meant that the jewellery created was meticulously detailed, featuring the finest and fresh techniques.
Goldsmith in His Shop, Petrus Christus, c.1449, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Famous Italian Jewellers
Although there were likely thousands of talented Italian Goldsmiths, there are three famous Italian jewellers and brands that stand out from the rest.
One of the most reputable Italian jewellers were Castellani. Briefly featured in our Etruscan revival jewellery blog, Castellani was a famous jeweller in the 19th century. The founder, Fornuto Pio Castellani, was known for being able to create deep saturated Gold tones that mimicked ancient Gold. The reason for Castellani’s success was that Fornuto had extensive knowledge of ancient and classical jewellery, for instance, he was the first 19th century Goldsmith to create works modelled on Italian and Greek prototypes. In 1836, Castellani had private and exclusive access by the Roman Catholic church to record and catalogue the jewellery unearthed from the Etruscan Regolini-Galassi tombs.
Micro Mosaic Brooch with Greek Cross, Castellani, c.1860, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This strengthened his intimate knowledge of classical jewellery, which he inspired his own designs. Castellani was taken over by Fornuto’s sons, Alessandro and Augusto, who opened branches in Paris and London (1859), and Naples (1863). Castellani’s designs were also widely exhibited at International Expositions and Castellani was active within the antique trade, sponsoring excavations and taking part in large scale dealerships and restoring artefacts. Sadly, Castellani closed its doors in 1930, yet this makes their creations highly prized amongst collectors.
Nymph and Swan Cameo, Cameo by Beneditto Pistrucci (1783-1855) Mount by Castellani, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Another Italian jewellery brand that has reached stratospheric heights is Bulgari. Bulgari was actually first founded in Rome in 1884 by Greek silversmith Sotirios Boulgaris. In 1905, Bulgari opened its flagship shop on the Via Condotti in Rome, one of the most fashionable streets of the city. Early Bulgari pieces are characterised by their Silver metals with Byzantine and Islamic art influences. Plus, Bulgari was hugely influenced by the jewellery designs coming from Paris. It wasn’t until after WWII that Bulgari firmly cemented their aesthetic.
They first created their famous serpenti bracelet watches at the end of the 1940s, and their jewellery was widely worn by famous 1950’s actresses including Elizabeth Taylor. The post-war boom made them very successful, as they adopted white metals, Diamonds, angular forms, strong colours, sautoirs and cabochon cuts in their designs. Today, Bulgari is still one of the most formidable Italian jewellery brands in the world.
Vintage Bulgari Serpenti Bracelet, Source - Pinterest
Our final Italian jeweller that we want to highlight is Buccellati. Buccellati is one of the few luxury brands that have retained their family roots, as it is believed that as far back as the mid 18th century, Buccellati ancestors were trained goldsmiths. Yet, the Buccellati that we recognise today was started by Mario Buccellati, who was first apprenticed in 1903 at Milan’s prestigious Beltrami & Beltrami. Mario Buccellati exhibited his designs at Madrid’s 1920s exposition and was famed for having an argument with an upper-class woman and he threw her expensive compact out of the window! Buccellati soon gained a loyal following within Italy, opening stores in Rome (1925) and Florence (1929), and was the first Italian jeweller to open a shop on the prestigious fifth avenue in New York (1951). Buccellati’s designs are an amalgamation of rich textural elements with unusual and characteristic gemstones.
Traditional Italian Jewellery Towns
As illustrated in our Jewellery Around the World Mexico blog, there are towns and cities in the world that are known for their jewellery craftsmanship. In Italy, these are Arezzo, Vicenza, and Florence. If you have a penchant for Italian antique jewellery, then why not add these places to your bucket list?
The name “Made in Italy” is weighted within luxurious connotations and is a hallmark of exquisite manufacturing, craftsmanship and materials.
Arezzo is actually one of the Etruscan capitals and today is a creative and manufacturing centre for Gold jewellery, so much so that Arezzo has its own jewellery museum. Plus, also in this region is a world jewellery trade fair that highlights the manufacturers and designers of the Arezzo province. Arezzo’s signature jewellery designs are using tightly woven mesh-like links into elaborate necklaces, brooches and bracelets.
Another Italian jewellery town is Vicenza, a north-eastern Italian town, cushioned against the larger more well-known cities of Verona and Venice. Vicenza is famous for its Palladian architecture and also for its glittering history of jewellery. Vicenza is home to Roberto Coin, one of Italy’s current and most successful jewellery brands. And, nearly 10% of the population in Vicenza is employed within the jewellery trade, with Vicenza having the prestigious jewellery school Scuola d’Arte e Mestieri. The local legacy of jewellery-making dates back as far as 600 BCE, as fibula (a type of Bronze dress fastener) was first made here. Like Arezzo, Vicenza also has a jewellery museum of Museo del Gioiello, and hosts an international jewellery trade show Vicenzaoro.
Of course, we can’t forget Florence! Florence was the cradle of the Italian renaissance and was the centre for 16th-century art and fashion. Florence is also a central place in Italy for goldsmithing, especially on the Ponte Vecchio, one of the most famous and romantic bridges in the world. In fact, in 1543 the Grand Duke Ferdinando Medici decided to have metalworkers and jewellers exclusively sell their goods on the Ponte Vecchio, simply because it wasn’t the pungent odours of butchers and tanners. This tradition still stands today, as the bridge is lit up by glittering contemporary and antique gems.
Don’t you just want to travel to Italy?
Read the rest of our Jewellery Around The World Series: