One of the few filigree artisans left in Italy worked on the Dolce&Gabbana Jewellery collection: my day with them reveals a historic workshop where craftsmanship and passion meet…
The light, which falls through the window and lands on Adele’s hands, makes her look even more intense. The fast movement of her fingers casting a shadow that seems to play with the tiny objects on the table where she is working. She has been giving form to the silver threads she is shaping for over 50 years.
I stood there watching her, enchanted as if she was performing a miracle – which she is, in a way - for it’s in this workshop in Campo Ligure, a small town in Liguria, that the small golden inserts of the first collection of Dolce&Gabbana Jewellery are handmade.
This place has been here since the beginning of the XX Century. It smells of wood, of meaningful memories, of hard work. Gianni Carlini, the owner, recounts its history to me with his hushed soft voice. “Filigree was born in the Eastern World, and then brought to Italy by Etruscan. Artisans in Italy were creating filigree objects in many workshops in Genova (Liguria) when plague took over, instigating a move further inland, here to Campo Ligure, to flee the contagion.”
Gianni learnt this trade from his father, at the age of 21, and fell in love with it straight away. I wonder if his son loves it, too. He frowns: “There were 30 filigree workshops here, and now we are down to 2 or 3. Do you want to know why? Because people like my son, young ones, don’t have any interest in learning this trade.” Shaking his head, he explains that, when it comes to filigree, you need to have passion and time to pour in, because it pays too little. “It’s not about the money at all” he says, “it’s about wanting to do it because you enjoy it.”
The workshop is literally stuffed with filigree objects: on the shelves, on the tables and in big boxes on the floor. Gianni and Adele carefully choose, from among piles of artworks, the ones that are more likely to be understood by me. When I discover the hours of work committed to each piece, I begin to gauge why the younger generation run away from a trade that merely gives you an esthetical reward – and this only after many hours of work. It’s still a shame, though, even if I understand why they do it. It makes me sad to think this craft will soon be forgotten.
Gianni, who relieves my temporary worries, cheers me up, walking towards me with a beautifully crafted orchid in his hands. He says everything starts from two subtle silver threads that are intertwined with a machine (i.e. the filigree), the only “mechanical” step in the whole process.
After that, everything is handmade and therefore unique. Every object comes out in a different way because it shelters the work of a human being, with its flaws and its incoherence.
First Adele starts to build the frame, the profile of the object. Before this, though, a long process of planning with Gianni is involved. “When an order is placed, the first thing I do is to ask Adele ‘how would you do it?’ I don’t know what I would do without her, she knows every step by heart.”
Once she is done with that – through rapid movements that follow one another, identical throughout the day - it’s Vittoria’s turn. Gianni works only with these two artisans now. Back in the day, the workshop reached the number of 22 employees.
She is sitting at a separate table. Shy like Adele, she keeps her bright eyes on her work, but she hints a smile: she is happy to share her story with me. “I learnt very young, at 15. It was my choice. For you it’s something new to discover, but it’s been almost 40 years for me. And it’s still fun, you know? But you need to learn young”, she says bending the threads with stunning attention to proportions, then pushing this “embroidered” part inside the frame crafted by Adele. Once the object is ready, it is immersed in chemical water and covered in silver powder. Then Gianni goes to his desk to solder it, refinishing the details. I am fascinated by how, within these 20 square meters where I stand, the simplest thread of silver – which in the case of Dolce&Gabbana Jewellery will be gold - becomes a butterfly, a star, a flower…
Gianni looks at me, then at the horizon for a second, like he was searching for something in his brain archive, and plunge his hands into a drawer crammed with papers. “With my wife I call it ‘mess under control’. Here I find everything! God forbid someone moves stuff” – he says while he picks out a particularly old sheet, yellowish and torn. He points with his index finger at beautifully drawn objects on it. I look at him in search of help: the only thing I can guess is that there is a story behind this, as for everything else stocked in this room. “These are my Grandpa’s. They are sketches of how to build filigree objects. Most of the time they were sacred things, like Mess’ goblets or Icons, others the weirdest accessories, like this one, a bag. He had to build them from scratch, with no measures, no references, and no scale model. Can you believe it?” he says with pride in his eyes.
With jewels it was a bit easier: Gianni and his father – as with other artisans in this field – had to invent special wooden tools of different uses and measures (written down next to the drawings). Rolling up the silver wire in a certain way (there are pins inserted into the wood as tracks) you end up with the shape you were looking for. “They are all noted down on my Father’s notebooks. I still have them, look.” And in his hands he takes the most fragile piece of paper I have ever seen, although he flips through it as if it were the sturdiest thing in the room, so used to its priceless value.
Now the sun has already set and he gets close to a lamp to show me other objects.
Adele is peeking now: it’s an Icon fully framed in filigree. She can’t help but laughing: “I apologize for my language but – you know? Even if they are sacred objects, sometimes they make us curse so much!” I laugh hard, too. “You can’t imagine the work behind this, days and days. And sometimes it doesn’t come up as you wanted it. And it’s so frustrating.”
“Or sometimes, instead, it comes out better than you imagined.” – Gianni joins in. “The other day I was working with two frames to create a bracelet, but they fell from my hands on the table and they were exactly what I was looking for, without knowing it. That’s the beauty of this job”, he says with a tone I find myself envious of.
I quickly realize why: it’s the voice of a happy person.
Written by Elisa della Barba
Photo credits Dennis Valle