The History And Craftsmanship Behind Micro-Mosaic Jewellery
If any type of jewellery could call itself a true work of art it would be the micro-mosaic. Painstakingly constructed with the tiniest pieces of glass or enamel-like material called tesserae, micro-mosaics can be made using gold, copper or black Belgian marble, and are inspired by mosaics, which date back more than 2,000 years. Some of the finest examples of mosaics have been excavated at archaeological sites from Ancient Rome and the Byzantine Empire. But as an art historian, what fascinates me is that micro-mosaics really took off towards the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century.
Founded in Paris in 2012, L’École, School of Jewelry Arts is the first school established for the general public to learn about the history, culture and savoir-faire of the jewellery arts. We now have a second permanent home at K11 Musea in Hong Kong, where two exceptional examples of micro-mosaics are used during one of our jewellery courses.
These two examples originate from Rome during the early 19th century, which was the height of micro-mosaic’s popularity. Well-heeled aristocrats would travel around Europe, and Italy had become a popular tourist spot. Known for their glass-making skills, Italian craftsmen began designing micro-mosaic jewellery as souvenirs, often depicting famous landmarks such as the recently rediscovered cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were completely buried by the Mount Vesuvius eruption in AD35. A superb example of micro-mosaic from this time is on display at the Louvre’s Galerie d’Apollon in Paris as part of the French Crown Jewels. A fabulous parure, it was gifted by Napoleon Bonaparte to his bride, Marie Louise of Austria, grand-niece of Marie Antoinette.
See also: September 2020: What's New In Jewellery
Micro-mosaics take time and patience, which is why it’s so important and difficult to keep this technique alive. In fact, one of L’École’s latest annual scholarships has been awarded to a student who is pursuing a master’s degree with a focus on micro-mosaics. And the technique continues to inspire some of the world’s most influential high-end jewellers. Van Cleef & Arpels’ Mystery Setting, for example, which was first used in 1933 so that a piece’s metal setting couldn’t be viewed between gemstones, was inspired by micro-mosaics.
Before we acquired the micro-mosaic bracelet and ring that are on display at L’École, both pieces were carefully sourced and curated by our own in-house team of jewellery historians. And while a jewel’s provenance makes it even more special, we unfortunately don’t know much about these beautiful examples of micro-mosaic. The bracelet depicts the Roman Forum, seen from the Campidoglio, as well as three identifiable monuments: the Septimius Severus Arch; the Rostra columns; and part of the Basilica Julia. What I love about micro-mosaics is that they act as the artistic equivalent of holiday photos. Today, we take a picture with our smartphone. Back then, you bought a micro-mosaic jewellery piece. What do you know? The more things change, the more things stay the same.
This is the second instalment of a series in which we ask jewellery experts to weigh in on industry trends, innovation and more. Inezita Gay-Eckel is an art historian for L’École, School of Jewelry Arts, supported by Van Cleef & Arpels.
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