Micro-Mosaics: Putting the Pieces Together

In my previous post, I discussed the Grand Tour and the booming jewelry souvenir business that it helped to create.  The Grand Tour allowed jewelry artisans the opportunity to master their craft and provided a bit of early "social media marketing."  Well-constructed pieces would eventually travel back with its new owner to their home country thereby giving the artisan's work the chance to reach new audiences.

One of the popular forms of Grand Tour jewelry were micro-mosaics.  Primarily from Italy, they were created by bringing hundreds of minuscule glass fragments, or tesserae, together to form highly detailed and colorful images.  The more detailed the image, the more difficult the project and the more masterful the craftsman.  Typically, these were tiny plaques which are only a few centimeters across, are comprised of  hundreds of tesserae, each cut from a rod or cane of glass fresh from the flames and still hot.  Because the individual tesserae are incredibly small and almost impossible to see, a microscope is often needed to assemble each piece onto the plaque – hence the term micro-mosaics.  

Italian, Victorian micro-mosaic brooch of a winged cherub, possibly Dionysus, the god of wine, resting atop a walking lion, centered in oval-shaped plaque of onyx in a 14-karat gold bezel setting, circa 1880. Photo courtesy A. Brandt & Son Antique & Estate Jewelry

Inspired by the great mosaics of antiquity, the most direct bieng the so-called Doves of Pliny, a wall panel measuring roughly 3 by 2.5 feet, discovered in 1737 at Hadrian’s Villa outside Rome.  Though the first introduction to the art of micro-mosaics in jewelry started in the 1770s when Giacomo Raffaelli created a brooch with a copy of the Doves of Pliny, the best micro-mosaics are those created in Italy in the 19th century.  The earliest micro-mosaics produced during the first half of the 19th century depicted naturalistic landscape scenes either incorporating monuments of ancient Rome or copied from 17th century landscape paintings.  Flower bouquets and animal subjects were also popular motifs of early 19th century micro-mosaics.  

Antique micro-mosaic brooch of the Doves of Pliny set in an 18kt. gold bezel from The Spare Room on 1st Dibs, $6,585.

By about 1830, micro-mosaics of pastoral and bestial imagery had reached a peak in fashion; and by 1850, the intricate art form had nearly fallen out of favor all together.  Luckily, in 1852, inspired by friends and patrons Count Vassili Olsoufieff and Duke Michaelangelo Caetani, the Castellani family had the idea of combining mosaics with goldsmith’s work, utilizing the golden barriers in the designs much like champleve enamel.  The high level of quality and finesse of this new form of micro-mosaics coupled with the shift toward mosaics of medieval inspiration, Early Christian imagery and archaeological finds revived the interest and demand of the public for these miniature tiled plaques in jewelry.  A traditional Roman symbol for love as well as the Christian emblem of the Holy Spirit, doves are one of the most popular motifs for Italian micro-mosaics. 

More dynamic pieces such as those which are three dimensional must be laden with precision detail in order for the design to be coherent are known as high relief.  Unlike most micro-mosaics composed on flat frames, this is a much less common for because it is more challenging for the jeweler to execute.  

A circa 1870s 15K yellow gold & micro-mosaic brooch featuring a scarab from N. Green & Sons Inc., $2,495.

The quality (and price) of micro-mosaics is measured in part by the size of the pieces used to make it and the amount of detail in the subject matter. The smaller the individual ceramic pieces are, the higher the skill demanded to make the mosaic. Another measure is, of course, condition.  If there are absolutely no pieces missing from the mosaics, and the color of the ceramic is as bright as the day the it was made then the value will reflect that.  Many micro mosaics become damaged over time, with those that remain most often becoming scratched, scuffed or yellowed, which leave the colors looking dull and distorted.

Antique 18K yellow gold Greek man micro-mosaic brooch found on eBay, $999.  The condition of this piece
demonstrates  what can happen to a micro-mosaic over time if they are not properly cared for.

I have always loved mosaic work but the skill and patience required to create micro-mosaics astounds me!  Today, throughout Italy - particularly in Rome - a traveller will still find an abundance of micro-mosaic artisans and souvenir shops ripe with simpler examples perfect for charm bracelets, daily wear necklaces or pill boxes.  Even today, a more detailed a design will command a higher price tag.  Additionally, subject matter can have a huge impact on the price tag for vintage pieces.  Prices seem to steeper when the subject matter is animals, landscapes or tourist destinations such as the Colosseum.  This price differential may be in part due to the detail required to create realistic birds, scarabs or recognizable landmarks.

18kt. yellow gold mosaic in a locket back pendant depicting doves in a variety of color tiles
from the Grand Tour, superb condition listed by Park Place on 1st Dibs, $3,575.

Whichever style of micro-mosaic you find yourself drawn to, be prepared to be amazed by the artistry and delicate nature of the work required by these jewelry craftsmen to create a wearable piece of art to commemorate your own 'Grand Tour!'

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