Most mosaic jewelry has traditionally always come from Italy, particularly Rome and Florence, but it also comes from Switzerland and Naples. Even as early as the 18th century, visitors to Italy purchased micro-mosaic jewelry as souvenirs. It became a status symbol in other parts of Europe and America to prove a trip to Italy and mosaic jewelry would sometimes even be sent home ahead as a kind of postcard. With its roots in ancient architectural techniques, micro-mosaic jewelry was very popular in Europe and the Americas throughout the 18th and 19th century and is still produced today, being considered a cultural treasure worthy of protection by the Italian people.
Generally, the finer and smaller the mosaics are, the older the piece. Particularly after Industrialization, the mosaic pieces became much larger and less refined. The best way of telling the age of the piece however is to look at the mounting.
Mosaic jewelry can be divided into two basic kinds:
1) ‘Micro-mosaic’. Here the jewelry is inlaid with a design made of small pieces of colored glass tube shaped tiles or tesserae on a glass or stone background, usually fixed with cement. (These small pieces can also sometimes be made from metal, marble or stone although not as often). When the glass tubes are cut into tiny pieces they are referred to as smalti. In the finest pieces, the design is created with thousands of very tiny colored smalti with no gaps in between. When the smalti is more than one color, it is referred to as ‘millefiori’ or “1000 flowers”. The expression ‘Millefiori’ is sometimes used to describe ‘micro-mosaic’. The glass for micro-mosaic is usually produced in Venice. Micro-mosaic jewelry has traditionally been produced in Rome. Micro-mosaic is actually a form of pontillism (using dots of color). It is a considered a derivative of the Roman Opus Vermiculatum mosaic style.
2) ‘Pietra dura’ or ‘Pietre dure’ jewelry, literally meaning ‘hard stone’, is also sometimes referred to as Florentine. Here hard stones such as chalcedony, agate, marble, jasper, and lapis lazuli, are laid flat to create the design. Rather than being a true mosaic, pietra dura is actually created more like a jigsaw puzzle. Pietra dura is traditionally produced in Florence. Pietra dura normally uses black marble as the foundation. Florentine designs normally use larger tiles than Roman micro-mosaic. Pietra dura is thought to be derived from the Roman opus sectile mosaic style. Popular during the Renaissance era, pietra dura enjoyed a revival throughout the 19th century.
Mosaic work jewellery of the 18th and 19th century often depicted famous Italian tourist attractions such as the Vatican Square as well as scenes from Roman mythology. Well-to-do travelers during the Grand Tour Era in which a trip to Italy was obligatory, would sometimes commission their own designs, favoring animals and famous paintings. Later in the 19th century and in modern recent time, designs become simpler and bolder and more decorative rather than figurative. The value of the piece is greatly determined not only by the fineness of the mosaic work, but also by the base metal. There are many later pieces on the market which do not have a great value, although they are still attractive.
Typical vintage Pietra Dura Brooch
Vintage micro-mosaic bracelet set in brass.
Generally, the Italian jewelry artisans most considered to have been responsible for the development and introduction of Italian mosaic jewelry were Giacomo Raffaelli, who created a micro-mosaic brooch in the 1770s, and Castellini who pioneered a new style for mosaics using gold wires to separate the pieces in 1850.
Doves of Pliny micro-mosaic, attributed to Giacomo Raffaelli, circa 1770
Micromosaic and Gold Brooch by Castellani, c.1880. Image Courtesy of Wartski.
Victorian lady wearing pietra dura brooch
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