Framed by the Rialto Bridge, fishermen deposit their catch under the green and white awning of a restaurant. Above, white gulls fly across an azure sky. So far, so familiar: the sky is always blue in pictures of Venice. What sets this image apart is that the medium is thousands of tesserae, tiny pieces of coloured glass, and the whole exquisitely detailed picture is barely two inches across. Made in the 19th century, this micromosaic was set as a brooch of the kind sold to tourists who could pin them to their dresses and take a little piece of Venice home.
This particular example belongs to the writer Judith Martin, better known as “Miss Manners”. A passionate Venetophile, she is also a collector of micromosaic jewels. In the past 20 years she has acquired two dozen such pieces, all with a Venetian theme. Some show jaunty gondoliers, some the Piazza, others are decorated with the winged lion of St Mark. Indeed, her first purchase was a pair of cufflinks for her husband that “show the Doge kneeling to the lion”, an image familiar to visitors to the Ducal Palace.
“I never thought of myself as a collector,” she says, “but when you have a certain number of things you have to admit you are.” That said, she restricts herself to Venetian-themed pieces. “If I were in love with Rome, I’d be broke,” she adds. For those with a nostalgic longing for the Eternal City have an even greater range to choose from – the micromosaic technique was perfected there in the 18th century for fashionable grand tourists to snap up.
As Charlotte Sayers, a dealer in antique jewellery at Grays market in London, observes, most women begin to collect micromosaic jewellery as something to wear. Susan Weber, who discovered them when she lived in London as the then wife of financier George Soros, agrees: “The brooches look particularly good on suits,” she says. Indeed, they are a kind of jewellery that complements the current climate and, although valuable, they’re not too showy, “not the sort of thing that would attract a robber’s eye. It’s so stylised, they would think it was costume.”
Weber has a particular interest in the superbly crafted micromosaics made in Rome by the firm of Castellani or by its student and later rival Carlo Giuliano, the two most sought-after makers of this kind of jewellery. Indeed, as founder and directer of New York’s Bard Graduate Center for studies in the decorative arts, design and culture, in 2004 Weber co-curated a first-rate exhibition on Castellani, for which she co-wrote the catalogue, one of the defining texts on the subject.
Geoffrey Munn, MD of the London jeweller Wartski, advised the American collector Judith H Siegel on the sale of her collection of Castellani and Giuliano jewellery. It was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2006 for a whisker under $7.5m, twice the estimate. Among the 154 lots was an 1860s Castellani Egyptian-revival micromosaic necklace with related brooch, a knockout example that followers of the current fashion for big, bold necklaces would adore. It went for $475,200.
Wartski, SJ Phillips and Hancocks were among the dealers who bought at the sale and, three years on, it is still worth checking to see what they have in stock – while in New York, Kentshire sometimes has fine pieces, as does Amsterdam’s Inez Stodel. Micromosaic jewels also come up at auction with reasonable frequency. In May, Bonhams, Knightsbridge, sold a brooch and matching pendant earrings with a beetle motif for £1,740. The same month, Christie’s South Kensington had a Castellani brooch, a medley of lush flowers framed in black stone that went for £6,875; while Derek Content, a private dealer in antique and archaeological revival jewellery based in London and New York, was asking $15,000 for a finely made moody landscape brooch.
Weber’s initial goal might have been wearing rather than simply collecting micromosaics, but there are people who are drawn to it because they are fascinated by the technique and the skill required to produce the best examples. This was certainly true of Sir Arthur Gilbert, entrepreneur, property developer, philanthropist and the medium’s most important collector, whose collection went on permanent display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in June, so raising the profile of the genre yet higher. This gallery is now the place to see perhaps the greatest and most extraordinary examples.
Having made enough of a fortune from “a business making evening gowns” to retire at the age of 36, Gilbert and his wife, Rosalinde, left their native London for Los Angeles in 1949, where he began to deal in real estate and buy art. (“To me, making money just for the sake of making money doesn’t make any sense. So I evolved into a collector,” he said.) In the 1960s, he bid for an Old Master painting he’d liked at a local auction. It turned out to be a magnificently crafted micromosaic. He was hooked. “In developing real estate I tried to buy prime-quality sites,” he said in 1999. “In collecting, I used the same approach.” He went on to buy some 200 examples of micromosaics, from plaques and tabletops to small boxes and jewels. Some employ as many as 1,500 minuscule tesserae per square inch; you need a magnifying glass to be sure they aren’t painted. Though, as Geoffrey Munn warns, great technical feats may elicit a “wow”, but they aren’t always beautiful. “You can show off your technical prowess at the expense of your artistic soul,” he says.
Gilbert’s collection, which he bequeathed to the British nation in 1996, may represent the apotheosis of micromosaic as an art form, but it’s still worth trawling antiques markets and sales for lesser examples. The technique may not be as fine, nor the settings gold, but the work can still be lovely.
Judith Martin, for example, has found almost all her pieces at flea markets around Washington DC and has rarely paid more than a few hundred dollars. Indeed, micromosaic jewellery can be bought for far less, since early 20th-century production in Italy tended to the cheap and cheerful, creating attractive pieces that can at a pinch liven up a little black dress. Pinch being the operative word, for – be warned – too often they are mounted on poorly designed clip earrings.