It has been about five years since I first began collecting vintage costume jewelry. I tend to look for unique pieces with lots of color. Lately, I have been drawn to those that look like mini-mosaics:
I actually own quite a few but have not known much about them until now…
I recently discovered there is a specific name for these intricately crafted pieces in my collection. It was coined by a wealthy English businessman named Sir Arthur Gilbert from the 20th century who called them “micro mosaics.” He owned one of the largest collections with over 300 pieces which included furniture, jewelry, and decorative art.
During the early 18th century, a Roman glass kiln owner and chemist named Alessio Mattioli experimented on colored glass paste with coloring agents termed “Smalti Filati.” Smalti is a brilliant, opaque fused glass made with crystalline and colored material. Smalti provided thousands of shades from just a few dozen hues of glass pastes. Filati is interpreted as “fused glass pulled by hand.”
Mattioli mixed his master tints together to achieve the color he desired and then melted them over an open flame which was then spun into threads of the desired thickness using tweezers. The Smalti Filati technique made it possible for artisans to produce micro mosaics using these little glass threads, approximately three millimeters long and a little thicker than a human hair, called tesserae.
They were used to hand assemble extraordinarily complex and detailed patterns or images with cement in a glass or stone background. The finest micro mosaics have between 3,000 and 5,000 micro tesserae per square inch! The final product was then waxed and polished, giving the finished piece a smooth appearance without any visible spaces.
The Vatican protected and supported Mattioli’s achievement. Because of his discoveries, their glass factory was able to carry out a research program which led to the production of 28,000 glass mosaic colors.
Masterpiece Painting Reproductions
Micro mosaics evolved in Europe as a way to reproduce masterpiece paintings so they would be preserved in a form that would not deteriorate in the humid conditions of large cathedrals.
Vatican artists noticed that architectural mosaics of ancient Rome had retained their color over the years. They started to look for ways to adapt mosaic techniques for copying paintings which required thousands of hues of tesserae in a non-reflective material to give the appearance of a painted surface. Because of Mattioli, they were able to achieve this. The micro mosaics then became known as “la vera pittura per eternity” meaning “painting for eternity.”
By the mid-1770s, nearly all of the paintings had been successfully copied by using micro mosaics. Even now, tourists are often unaware the paintings being viewed are mosaics and not actually painted.
The Grand Tour
The Grand Tour was the standard European vacation from the mid-17th century and gained popularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Italy was one of the top tourist destinations with its long history in arts and culture.
During the early 1800s, commercial mosaic studios opened up in Rome as tourism flourished. Italian craftsmen began to design micro mosaic souvenirs. Victorians vacationing in Rome could take home an architectural image of the Pantheon or the beautiful scenery they had just experienced.
Micro mosaic brooch of the Pantheon set in black glass; c. 1875
Micro mosaic brooches and pins became fashionable, serving as a wearable image from the trip. Bracelets, necklaces, and earrings were also crafted for tourists.
Here are a couple of colorful vintage micro mosaic pins I repurposed into adjustable rings:
Although micro mosaic jewelry sold very well, it was rarely talked about in the jewelry design reports of that time. This indicated to the artisans that tourists did not fully appreciate the level of workmanship that went into creating these pieces.
By the mid-1800s, artisans began to look for ways to save time and make their jewelry more affordable. The tesserae got larger, making them more visible and not as carefully placed in their settings. These were better-termed “mosaics” as the micro mosaics refer to the tiny tesserae producing an incredible realism of an image. The older the piece, the smaller and more intricate the mosaic pieces which add greater value.
Caring for Your Micro Mosaic Jewelry
If you happen to own a vintage micro mosaic piece of jewelry, it is important to know how to clean it. Make a cleaning solution of warm water with a drop or two of dish-washing detergent. Dip a soft toothbrush into the solution and then shake it well to get rid of any excess water. Scrub the tiles vigorously for 10 seconds and then quickly rinse the piece of jewelry under warm water to remove the soap suds. Wipe the tiles dry with a soft cloth.
Be sure to never soak your micro mosaic piece in water as the cement used to make this type of jewelry can be softened, resulting in some of the tiles coming loose.
Micro Mosaic Collections
If you enjoy traveling and have an appreciation for micro mosaics, you might want to check out two of the largest micro mosaic collections in the world. The Hermitage Collection is located in St. Petersburg, Russia and the Gilbert Collection is in London, England.
I now know why I have been so drawn to these colorful micro mosaics. They are true artistic masterpieces to be treasured for many years to come!
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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