Micromosaic jewelry has been sold in Italy to visitors since the Grand Tour, the traditional journey across Europe taken by aristocrats who’d just come of age.
The “Grand Tour” has roots as early as the 1500s but reached the height of popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming at that time a rite of passage for wealthy youth, as well as a point of honor with their parents.
Beloved movie adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View dramatizes such a trip to Italy.
This 14K gold antique horse stick pin was found for sale on ebay. It’s an early example of how tessarae – the tiny handmade glass tile pieces that make up the mosaic – were used to mimic art.
Andamento & how micromosaic jewelry is made
In the horse pin above, each tessare is set on its side, so that the largest surface area of each mirco tile is touching its setting.
Other techniques include tessarae that are shaped like matchsticks and stand upright, so the small tips are what, combined, produce the image.
Mosaic tesserae traditionally are placed together using a flow called Andamento.
Andamento is the visual flow and direction within a mosaic produced by the placement of rows of tesserae.
Sometimes, this flow is fluid and the movement is smooth. Other times, artists attempt to disrupt the flow and go for a feel of choppier waters.
Here’s mosaic artist Helen Miles on andamento.
On large projects, many mosaicists may be working together on a single piece. A lead designer sets a style or figure, specifies the construction, and allows the skilled mosaicists to execute the vision.
You can imagine that this is how more contemporary shops manage to design and execute so many souvenir pieces for the mass of tourists Italy receives each year.
Micro mosaic jewelry and Italian architecture
Micromosaic jewelry has ability to represent the ancient Roman architecture and landmarks of Italy, making it an appropriate souvenir.
This piece has been dated circa 1820s-1830s.
From a later period, this brooch / necklace pendant set in sterling shows St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The images below were found in Earrings From Antiquity to the Present.
But the style is also perfect as memorabilia of an Italian tour because it incorporated the ancient Roman technique of tile-work.
This in-depth look at the history of micromosaics by the Jewellery Editor is the best I’ve found. It includes an introduction to highly collectible 19th century micro mosaic artists and contemporary museum exhibitions featuring micro mosaic art.
Collecting micromosaic jewelry
The most well-known collectors of micromosaic art were the Gilberts, and their collection is now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Frequently, mini mosaic art (what it was originally called before the Gilberts named it micromosaic) was brought back from Italy in large art panels, and then broken down into pieces to be set in jewelry, snuff boxes, and other wearable items and tabletop decor.
As the middle class grew, and more and more people could afford European tours, micromosaic jewelry grew more rustic. Because more jewelry had to be made more quickly to satisfy demand, pieces representing landmarks, animals, and people became the purview of fine jewelers.
What started out as high art has developed into a refined skill honed to reproduce one-of-a-kind pieces by the hundreds, perhaps thousands a month for a high tourist season.
Flowers and floral bunches are the norm for your everyday tourist wanting to spend less than a fortune on a souvenir.
That said, each one remains hand-set, with variations in color schemes and very often in the floral patterns, to the point that no two are the same. It is a handmade craft requiring skill.
I often have micromosaic jewelry for sale at minusOne.
Arguably, when reviewing the works of micromosaic art on display, the affordable, commercial brooches sold as souvenirs to most people in Italian shops tend toward kitsch.
Regardless of their tendency toward commercialization, I do collect affordable micromosaic pieces.
Millefiori style micromosaic jewelry
Many of the garden variety micromosaic jewelry on the vintage and contemporary market today include mini millefiori tiles.
Millefiori are a style of ornamental glass that fuses glass rods of different sizes and colors together. Then the glass rods are cut into sections to form patterns.
Micromosaic artists often use tiny millefiori tiles in their micromosaic jewelry. The pin below incorporates cut round black and white swirl tiles with concentric circles in red, black and yellow.
This bracelet’s panels include cut black rounds with what look like polka dots, but are actually a pattern of millefiori fused glass rods.
Once you consider the Italian millefiori style of glass making, and realize that many of the tessarae used in micromosaic jewelry are glass tiles, the millefiori style jumps out at you in many of the commercial 20th century micromosaic designs.
Worth the trip to anywhere: Other souvenir jewelry
In addition to micromosaics, Italy is also well known for its intaglio – designs carved into shell or stone like carnelian to make cameo portraits or landscapes.
Japanese souvenir jewelry was also popular during “occupied Japan” – the middle of the 20th century. Necklaces like this one showcased Japan’s Komai technique, and jewelry often included damascene or onlay (comparable to inlay).
Storyteller bracelets served as memorabilia for tourists to Mexico, Egypt and Peru.
And of course, Taxco sterling silver jewelry abounds in Mexico, and the sheer variety of styles and shapes.
In my mind, jewelry makes a perfect souvenir.
And of course, I often have vintage souvenir jewelry for sale at minusOne.