In Italy, the past survives in the present day; the country’s allure springs from its enduring history. The renown of Italy’s jewelry, with its sensual beauty and extraordinary craftsmanship, is founded on the goldsmithing skills passed down through generations from the medieval guilds that once guarded the secrets of the trade.
The labor-intensive and awe-inspiring style of traditional fabrication continues today, but the craft is expanding as technology revolutionizes the jewelry industry — marking a new age in Italian jewelry.
Vicenza is one of Italy’s principal jewelry hubs, a city that, in 1300, already boasted 150 members in its goldsmiths’ guild. These days the small city is host to Vicenzaoro, one of the world’s most important jewelry fairs, and home to 900 jewelry companies, from small artisan workshops to high-powered producers like Roberto Coin.
In the outskirts of the city, where industrial buildings abut agricultural fields, the Coin factory whirs with activity. Hidden behind several security doors, artisans in green lab coats file, polish and set jewelry while nearby machines toil away at their own jobs, printing out wax models and spinning wire into springy tubes.
Production begins with the computer at Roberto Coin, where digital designers create 3-D images of as many as 700 models a year, all prepared with enough precision that they can fit together flawlessly. In an adjacent room, 3-D printers fabricate those designs, spitting out micrometers of wax to make elaborate models that later will be cast in 18-karat gold or sterling silver, and then be polished, assembled and meticulously set with stones.
Carlo Coin, the production director and son of the brand’s founder and namesake, bounced around the workshop enthusiastically as he showed off the company’s cutting-edge machinery and a row of goldsmiths at their traditional benches. “Everyone in the world is using 3-D printers to make jewelry now — mostly to make things cheaply — but we’re using them to make complicated pieces that are impossible to make by hand,” he said, picking up a bracelet from a tray piled high with gold jewelry to illustrate his point.
Traditionally, jewelry is cast in a rubber mold, reducing it to a two-part composition of front and back that then can be soldered together. With 3-D printing, those spatial limits disappear.
The bracelet that Mr. Coin displayed had a carpet of delicately connected butterflies forming an outer and inner cuff, with a web of wire bridges between the two layers; if it had been made by hand, it probably would have been fabricated as a single flat cuff. Another, the new Torchon bracelet, is a metal helix of floating twists, its three-dimensional hollow form plausible only as a computer-realized design.
Behind Mr. Coin, a goldsmith at his bench gripped the new Princess bracelet, made of a smooth, rope-edged gold sheet atop an intricate cage — all computer generated as a single piece. After filing the surface, he took a fine-toothed steel engraving tool and combed successive straight lines into the gold to create a silk-like radiance — a Renaissance-era technique requiring a well-trained hand to make perfectly parallel lines. “We combine high technology with traditional craftsmanship to create something new,” said Mr. Coin, as he swiveled the Princess bracelet to shimmer in the light.
The company began in 1996 with a predisposition toward new technology; Roberto Coin adapted machines meant to weave car exhaust pipes to produce delicate jewelry.
Later versions of those machines now spin gold and silver wires into flexible, basket-like tubes that compose many of the brand’s most beloved designs, including its best-selling Primavera bracelet — a springy, clasp-free piece that slides onto the wrist, emblematic of the easy wearability that dominates modern Italian jewelry styles.
According to Carlo Coin, his father’s brand was the first jewelry company to adopt 3-D printers 13 years ago — shortly after their introduction, and when they only printed in a resin that was difficult to cast. So five years ago when wax printing machines were devised specifically for the jewelry industry, the company quickly switched to an entirely digital model-making process.
“We are an extremely computerized company,” Roberto Coin said of the brand he has built. “We are the opposite of what people think of with Italy because we combine two different types of manufacturing: craft and computer. You need the brain and the touch of a human being for the beautiful part, but the new tools make the jewelry more perfect.”
At Vhernier, a company renowned for dramatically contemporary gold jewelry, perfection takes a different route. “Jewelry must be shaped by the hand,” said Angela Camurati, the brand’s head of production. “Today we use the computer to render the technical details of a piece, but its beauty can only be formed by the artisan,” she added, circling her hand to signal, with an Italian gesture, the progression of time, the brand’s gold Abbraccio ring flashing on her finger.
Seated beside her in the back room of Vhernier’s flagship Milan store, Carlo Traglio, president of the company since 2001, added that jewelry production should never be entirely mechanized. “You’d lose the talent to truly create,” he said. “You’d lose the poetry.”
In 2014, Vhernier introduced the first bracelet in its Plissé collection, a piece crisscrossed with such complicated facets that it seemed to have been computer designed — but it began with a piece of paper, pleated and folded by hand, and translated, through a painstaking process of countless hand-carved iterations, into a wax model.
At Vhernier, artisans craft every model by hand, but the company does not snub technology. A final wax, approved for beauty and wearability, is digitized into a computer-rendered design by a 3-D scanner: the width is evened out, springs and hinges are precisely placed, technical and functional details are added. But, according to Ms. Camurati, a jewel’s success is in the warmth imbued by the original hand fabrication.
In recent years, titanium — a material associated with bicycle frames and aircraft carrier parts — has been catapulted into the category of precious jewelry material. The exceptionally light substance is also the hardest material on earth, and therefore much more difficult and time-consuming to work with than gold.
From Vhernier, the Volta Celeste pendant with blue sapphires. It took the jewelry company two years of experimentation to produce, in 2015, the first titanium pieces of the Volta Celeste collection.
For Vhernier, with its artisans in the jewelry hub of Valenza, it took two years of experimentation to introduce, in 2015, the first titanium pieces of the Volta Celeste collection, where large discs of the metal were studded with bright sapphire pavé. Already, the development has progressed. “Plenty of companies use titanium now, but it’s always hidden behind stones,” Ms. Camurati said. “The real challenge of titanium is to make jewelry the way we’re doing it.”
Opening a black snakeskin box, she removed a necklace called La Calla, made of smooth, interlinking metal trumpets with a smattering of diamonds gleaming against expanses of deep grey, satin-finished titanium. Other pieces, like the one-of-a-kind Blue Velvet necklace, use titanium’s unique property of richly hued oxidation to create colorful new jewels — in this case, a collar stacked with a zigzag of scallop shapes, each the same intense tone of cobalt as the brilliant 60-carat tanzanite stone at the necklace’s center.
Vhernier’s designs use the material with the same pride reserved for gold in traditional Italian jewelry — as a central element, showing off the metal’s smooth surface as a sign of perfect craftsmanship. Its titanium collections — shaped by skilled goldsmiths, structurally perfected as 3-D designs and soldered together by laser as the material requires — encapsulate the beauty of Italian jewelry. “We’re thrilled that technology can help us,” Ms. Camurati said, “but the artisan’s eyes and hands remain the soul of our pieces.”
Mr. Traglio added, “There’s been an extraordinary rediscovery of the Italian artisan in the last 20 years thanks to the success of the luxury market. Our tradition is still our strength, but today we have some new tools in our kit.”