Colori dell’Italia

On a trip to Italy earlier this year, I was mesmerised by the vibrant palette of the landscape and towns of the Amalfi coast. The contrasting hues of the steep mountain cliffs, azure blue waters, lush forests, and colourful towns are both unique and spectacular. Vibrant colour seems to have touched every aspect of Italian culture, from food, dramatic renaissance art, eclectic fashion, and of course jewellery design. 

An appreciation of colour was cemented during the Roman empire when jewellery was characterised by a use of vibrant gemstones and coloured glass. With extensive reach over Europe and North Africa, the Romans had access to various imported coloured jewels including garnet, jasper, lapis lazuli, emerald, amber, sapphire, and moonstone. These colourful gems were used in abundance, and at the height of the Empire, gemstones were considered more valuable than precious metals.  

Bulgari, 18ct Gold, Topaz, Citrine and Diamond ‘Elisia’ Ring / Sold for $5,000

Influenced by large scale Greek and Roman mosaics is the variegated micro mosaic technique. Aligned with the 19th century interest in ancient Rome and Greece, the technique emerged in the Vatican City with the creation of miniaturised versions of iconic mosaics at Italian landmarks such as Saint Peter’s Basilica. The technique itself is laborious, using tiny fragments of coloured glass or enamel called tesserae that are carefully arranged to create a miniature scene. Demand for the artform peaked in the 19th century, with pieces featuring landscapes, floral motifs, and historical scenes. Steeped in Italian tradition, several contemporary jewellery designers have reimagined and revived the distinctive micro mosaic process, including Ravenna based company Sicis. The house produces flamboyant jewellery creations that have a unique kaleidoscopic effect. Using a technique called malmischiati, which blends colours within glass, the house also incorporates precious minerals such as gold, sapphires, and diamonds amongst the miniature tiles to create a vast array of colour and optical delight.  

It is impossible to discuss the use of colour in Italian jewellery design without mentioning Bulgari. Whilst early 20th century pieces primarily utilised platinum and diamonds, Bulgari designs exploded with colour in the 1960s coinciding with the economic boom of the La Dolce Vita period. Focus shifted towards surprising and deliberate contrasts of colour, with gemstones, enamel, and differing gold tones carefully juxtaposed with dazzling chromatic effect. Experimentation with gemstone cuts emerged, with the house selecting smooth cabochon cuts to emphasise colour in stones. Traditionally the cabochon cut had been reserved for lower value gemstones, however Bulgari experimented with ruby, emerald, and sapphire cabochons with exuberant chromatic effect. Use of adventurous and highly pigmented materials such as coral, jasper, and malachite continued through the 1970s, cementing the brand’s interest and commitment to colour in their designs. Attracting the most illustrious clientele including Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman, and Gina Lollobrigida, these extravagant and colourful designs are coveted by vintage jewellery collectors worldwide. 

Traditions of bold and colourful jewellery design continue to be a driving force for contemporary Italian jewellery house Pomellato. In 2001, the brand launched the iconic Nudo range, utilising jewel-coloured precious stones decisively. Rebelling against the ubiquitous white gold and diamond jewellery so popular at the time, the range embraced large stones, bold colour, and vibrancy. Despite the rich colours, the simple settings of these pieces give them a sense of everyday wearability. Designed to be worn as stacks of rings set with stones in contrasting colours, they take inspiration from colours of the Italian landscape as well as pop culture and contemporary art. 

Our Fine Jewels & Timepieces Auctions will take place on Monday 18 March in Melbourne. 

By Bethany Mcgougan, Head of Fine Jewels & Timepieces

Banner Image: Atrani, on the Amalfi Coast near Naples in Southern Italy.

November 2023