Nardi

This old-school emporium in Venice has sold jewellery to royalty and jet-setters, and is still in the hands of its founding family.

Alberto Nardi at the family jewllery store in Venice.
Alberto Nardi at the family jewllery store in Venice. | Image: Guido Castagnoli

It was Napoleon who described St Mark’s Square as “the finest drawing room in Europe”, a typically flamboyant statement. Were he to see it today, I can’t help thinking that Boney might take issue with the backpackers who pile into Venice dropping only detritus from their packed lunches rather than any serious money. Nevertheless, there are a few places around this most famous of Italian piazzas that do their best to maintain the standards that Napoleon presumably had in mind, and my favourite is the jeweller Nardi.

A pink sapphire Paola Moretto brooch (€5,500).
A pink sapphire Paola Moretto brooch (€5,500). | Image: Guido Castagnoli

Nardi opened in 1926 and is still in the hands of the eponymous founding family. It is a beautiful shop, in the old-fashioned way. Venetian velvet covers the walls. The vitrines of brooches, necklaces and cuff links have a dignity about them that is enhanced by classical artworks including a canvas by Fontebasso. And as well as being conventionally beautiful, the parquet floor is made using the construction techniques of a yacht deck to cope with the city’s periodic floods.

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Nardi is old school and proud of it; it does things the way they’ve been done since the 1920s. Walking into this suite of calm, elegant rooms, it is still possible to catch a whiff of what Venice was like when it was a haunt of the jet set, when the term was still used without irony, and when Nardi was the rendezvous of every glamorous royal and movie star: Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, Spanish monarchs and Lauren Bacall.

Nardi’s magnificent main room has a Fontebasso painting on the wall (far left).
Nardi’s magnificent main room has a Fontebasso painting on the wall (far left). | Image: Guido Castagnoli

However, a special place in this exalted pantheon is reserved for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, legendary lovers… and shoppers. Knowing Taylor’s weakness for exquisite jewellery, Dominick Dunne once took a car from Cortina d’Ampezzo just to buy her a ring of angelskin coral, while Burton purchased a Moretto brooch (which, had the term not been banalised beyond usefulness I’d have prefixed with the adjective “iconic”). These are still made, and a pink sapphire Paola Moretto brooch costs €5,500.

Yellow and white gold cuff links with engraved coral and brilliant diamonds (€2,700).
Yellow and white gold cuff links with engraved coral and brilliant diamonds (€2,700). | Image: Guido Castagnoli

Nardi is a repository of the unexpected. The charming Alberto Nardi, a gemologist, travels to Colombia, Burma and beyond bringing back stones for his artisans, who work in a small workshop behind the square or on the mainland. The stones are then turned into one-off pieces – sometimes traditional, sometimes contemporary – marrying gems with materials such as titanium. I was particularly taken with a bold necklace that mixes links of gold and amber (€8,500).

Linked amber and gold necklace (€8,500).
Linked amber and gold necklace (€8,500). | Image: Guido Castagnoli

I once bought some vintage Nardi cuff links at auction and on a recent visit to Venice was keen to see what was in stock. The Venetian theme is strong, with carnival mask links set with a variety of stones (from €3,000). Having looked in the window, I asked if there were more, whereupon a tray was brought out from under the counter with an array of fastenings, including some very bold abstract links of yellow gold, set with a large lump of turquoise. They had plainly remained unsold since the 1970s – but Nardi finally got rid of them that afternoon. I honestly don’t know how Richard Burton missed them, but I’m glad he did.

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