Birth of Jewelry
Research has determined that one of the first necklaces was found in a Monaco cave and dates back 25,000 years ago. Although it was a simple piece made from fish bones, it was not a surprise as the first adornments were derived from the hunt (i.e., teeth, claws, horns, bones). Hunters believed that wearing their kill would bring them luck. A good hunter had the respect of the villagers and the jewels told everyone of victories.
As time moved on, jewelry has been worn as amulets to protect from bad luck and disease as well as control over fertility, wealth, love and even believed to offer magic properties. As the century’s proceeded, jewelry demonstrated human connections with slaves wearing bracelets to show who owned them and wedding rings symbolizing the commitment of two people to each other. Rich Roman women owned expensive jewelry (i.e., earrings, bracelets, rings, brooches, necklaces, diadems) with precious stones (i.e., opals, emeralds, diamonds, topaz and peals) adorned. At one time in Europe only the wealthy and high-ranking church officials had permission to wear gemstones as they were signs of wealth and power.
Italy Enters the Jewelry Scene
The Egyptians introduced the Italians to the concept of jewelry (700 BCE). At the time, Italian designs were not considered as lovely as Greek concepts and some termed the Etruscan/Italian pieces as barbaric. As centuries passed the Greek influence has been integrated into Italian jewelry ideas and now the pieces are considered delicate works of art.
The Lavish Life of the Nobility
The Romans were very skilled in marketing and encouraged the popularity of gold jewelry; the more gold worn, the wealthier the individual. Their behavior was so “over the top” that a law had to be written that restricted the consumption or use of specific items by selected members of the population. Known as sumptuary laws they limited conspicuous consumption. The idea of the law was to control the spending of the richest of the rich but were also designed to keep the lower classes from blurring the lines of social distinction which was accomplished by making it illegal for specific garments, fabrics and colors for anyone who was not nobility to wear.
In 213 BCE Emperor Fabius restricted women to wearing only half an ounce of gold at a time. Senators, ambassadors and noblemen wore their gold rings in public to identify their position in government as the sumptuary law prohibited the wearing of rings in private. Brooches were worn to secure clothing and gold or iron rings adorned every joint of every finger.
With the increased popularity of jewelry, designers were the first to have the freedom to experiment and they created the foundations for current jewelry making. Goldsmiths from eastern areas such as Greece and modern-day Turkey went to the Roman Empire (specifically the Etruscan region of Tuscany), where jewelers witnessed the beginning of practices like alloying metals, engraving and stone setting while perfecting the “granulation” technique for fine gold jewelry crafting.
Consumer Consumption Decreases. Religious Use Increases
With the fall of Rome, the jewelry tradition decreased in popularity. Other civilizations discovered rare and unearthed mineral deposits increasing the overall supply of gold keeping the jewelry trade alive in Western Europe serving the purposes of the Roman Catholic Church. Jewels and handcrafted gold articles were primarily located in cathedral treasuries or imperial courts. The public wore very little jewelry apart from a signature piece that reflected religious and societal norms or beliefs.
In the 11th century monastery-based workshops began to decline and were replaced with secular craft houses. Freedom led goldsmiths to serve the whims of royalty and nobility once again, creating the first official goldsmiths’ guilds in the 1100s. Italian gold jewelry remained the most highly sought after in the industry with Vicenza and Florence the center for jewelry design/making inspiration.
Most popular were finger rings representing good omens and talismans. They also were used to serve as a seal and remained a sign of governing office. Medallion -style brooches with jewels had inscriptions on the back to remind the wearer of their religious meanings. Some ring style brooches depicted scenes with small figurines shaped of gold surrounded by a ring of numerous small stones with inscriptions describing the motif.
In the 14th century and the Renaissance, Italian jewelry spread to other parts of the world as an extension of Italy’s foreign trade leaving behind the influence of the church and signaling a return to classic styles, mythology and exotic symbolism. Over the next 200 years there was a return to the classical style of Rome and a renewed demand for gold jewelry. Jewelers’ arts in Tuscany soared in performance and expression thanks to the wealth that trickled down to the Italian middle class.
Jewelry designs sat at the same artistic level as the work of revered Italian Renaissance painters, sculptors and architects.
Donatello, Brunelleschi and Botticelli underwent goldsmithing apprenticeships helping to create a sense of realism and intricacy in the jewelry worn by their painted and sculpted subjects.
As Renaissance jewelry wearing expanded, the nobility of various European countries held contests to determine who was more elegant with awards based on the jewelry worn and this increased the demand for beautiful jewels. Gemstones became available during the Renaissance and wealthy patrons clamored for them. Gone were the days of pure gold ornamentation as jewels like pearls and semiprecious stones brought vibrant color and uniqueness to every piece.
Fast Forward: Jewelry Is Big Business in Italy
In 2020, the worldwide jewelry market was valued at approximately $228 billion and forecast to reach $307 billion by 2026. Jewelry is very important to the Italian market representing $1.54 billion in exports (2019), increased to $1.7 billion (2020) and provides employment to over 22,000 people. The US is Italy’s third largest jewelry market, representing a total of 8.9 percent of exports. Currently there are over 1000 Italian jewelry companies in the US markets. Campania, Lombardy, Piedmont, Tuscany and Veneto are the most important regions in Italy for jewelry design. It is these locales where artisans unveil their collection.
Italian Jewelry Manifesto. The Event
For three days Italian jewelry was on display at an event sponsored by The Futurist, Italian Trade Agency (ITA), Federorafi and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The program was designed as an educational and networking experience and featured over 50 Italian jewelry brands covering multiple sectors of the Italian jewelry trade from luxurious and exclusive to basic chains and earrings.
Using the Salotto format (elite group of industrial, financial and political power brokers who have controlled Italian industry), over 300 buyers, including Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and representatives of Mayfair, London-bases jewelers including major retailers (i.e., Zales and Signet).
Fabrizio Giustarini, Director of ICE-Houston Agency, impressed with the event, determined that there was a need for the US market to find, at a single event, the best offering for the jewelry sector. Claudio Piaserico, President of Federorafi, also found the event a good idea as it exposed the ability of the Italian jewelers to compete in the global market.
Dennis Ulrich, Piazza Italia co-founder; Paola De Lucas, The Futurist founder; Claudia Piaserico, Fedeorafi president.
A few of my favorite pieces from the show:
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.