Wednesday, July 26, 2017

It's a Small, Small World

QUESTION: I love old jewelry. Recently, I attended an antique show and one of the dealers had a case of old jewelry that got my attention. I was drawn to a beautiful old handpainted brooche. When I asked about it, the dealer said that it wasn’t painted at all but was made of hundreds of tiny glass pieces assembled in a mosaic scene. He said this method was called “micromosaic.” I wanted to buy the brooche on the spot, but it’s price was out of my range. Can you tell me what “micromosaic” is and a little about its history?

ANSWER: Sir Arthur Gilbert, a wealthy 20th-century collector, came up with the term “micromosaic” to describe Roman mosaics composed of little glass bricks called tesserae. Roman jewelers sold this type of miniature mosaic, made up of 1,500 to 5,000 pieces per square inch, to Victorian ladies on the Grand Tour in the early and mid-19th century.

While the most common forms were brooches and pendants, Roman jewelers also sold micromosaics in combinations called a parure, consisting of a matching necklace, earrings, brooch, bracelet and often a diadem or tiara. A variation on this is the demiparure which consists of as few as two matching pieces, such as earrings and a necklace or brooch. They also sold the pieces individually. Cemented to a glass, stone, or metal background and framed, the glass tesserae were originally so small that these pieces appeared to have been painted or enameled—that is until examined under a microscope.

The Victorians developed a passionate interest in the Classical Period of antiquities. They could purchase a brooche or other piece of jewelry containing an image of the Colosseum, the ancient ruins of Pompeii, or the beautiful scenery of the Italian countryside. To them, the jewelry acted as a wearable souvenir of their travels. Other popular motifs included miniature versions of ancient architectural mosaics, ancient wall paintings like those found at Herculean, King Charles spaniels, and mythological and religious figures.

Micro mosaic jewelry originated at the Vatican, which had its own secret formula for making glass-like enamel tesserae. During the mid-1770s, a few of the Vatican artists began making miniature mosaic art using tiny tessarae, creating the first micromosaics. They crafted miniature boxes, crosses, and jewelry to sell to visitors using typical Roman ruins and other familiar scenes of Italy.

The excavations at Pompeii, which had been completely covered by the volcanic eruption in A.D.79, uncovered a city that provided a glimpse of an ancient civilization almost beyond belief to the Victorian travelers. The mosaic columns, garden fountains and stone floors, some dating as early as the second century B.C.,were breathtakingly beautiful and found their way into the art of micromosaics.

Soon, commercial mosaic studios began opening in Rome, offering the rapidly growing tourist market micromosaic mementos of ancient Roman ruins. In the early days, the average European traveler could only afford micro mosaics set into pill boxes and paperweights, but wealthier travelers could afford elaborate pictures, tabletops, and jewelry.

Perhaps the most important designer of micromosiac jewelry was Castellani, an Italian workshop founded in 1814 and run by artisan Fortunato Pio Castellani and craftsman and Dante scholar Michelangelo Caetani. They took much of their inspiration from archaeological digs in ancient Rome and Egypt. Castellani’s artisans set their unusually fine micromosaic work  in gold frames, adorned with Etruscan filigree and granulation. Often, they would incorporate Latin sayings in their mosaic designs, using Roman capitals surrounded by geometric designs.

The work of the Castellani family greatly influenced another famous Italian jeweler, Carlo Guiuliano. During the 1860s, he set up shop in London. His work concentrated more on the reproduction of Italian Renaissance jewelry than Roman and Etruscan designs, fashioning his pieces to Victorian taste. After his death, his two sons, Frederico and Ferdinando, continued the business until it closed in 1914. A signed Guiuliano gold necklace, matching brooch and earrings, with Roman mosaic of putti, muses and flowers, is worth about $5,000 to $6,000 in today's market.

Crafstmen made their micromosaic jewelry similar to larger pieces. They glued small sections of fine rods of colored glass into patterns or pictures within a frame of hardstone or colored glass. They then set the whole piece in an outer gold or silver frame that gave added protection to the fragile center.

Besides ancient ruins, subjects included flowers, such as delicately shaded roses, lilies, violets and carnations which were symbols of love and friendship in Victorian times. Birds and insects were also popular. Many micromosaics portray the dove—a common symbol of purity and peace.

As the 19th century came to an end and more and more middle class tourists visited Italy, jewelers began to cut corners with their micromosaic pieces. They began using larger pieces of glass and shoddy workmanship in order to keep up with the demand for less expensive pieces. Many of the pieces available today come from the 1890s to the 1920s.

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