How Italy’s heart of gold is merging with more modern jewelry machinery

How Italy’s heart of gold is merging with more modern jewelry machinery

VICENZA, Italy — Earlier this year, Italian jeweler Fope unveiled its new Flex’it necklace collection with an extravagant party for around 300 guests at a 17th-century estate on the outskirts of this UNESCO-listed city in the Veneto region. of the World Heritage about 50 miles west of Venice.

To highlight the flexibility of its patented 18-karat gold mesh chains, the brand, founded here in 1929, had members of Urban Theory, a popular Milan-based hip-hop dance troupe, perform their signature style of tutting – moving your limbs in dramatic angular poses. The gold necklaces they wore as ornaments gleamed in the candlelight.

“A good performance is like a good jewel,” said Valentina Bertoldo, content marketing manager at Fope, above the noise of the crowd. “You say, ‘Wow,’ but behind it is all this research, skill, precision, technicality.”

You could say the same about the jewelry industry in Vicenza.

Home to a goldsmithing tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, this town of 110,000 is best known among tourists for its concentration of buildings by 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio, not to mention its jewelery museum, housed in the palatial Basilica Palladiana that dominates the central square. It’s also a hub for jewelers who continue to promote traditional craftsmanship even as they experiment with cutting-edge techniques such as powder metallurgy – reducing precious metals to powder to be used in 3D printing, or what the industry calls additive manufacturing. .

It’s the kind of advancement that will allow jewelers to execute designs that are impossible to achieve through traditional casting methods, ensuring consistent quality and results.

“Vicenza is, without a doubt, the technological core of the production of machinery for the gold sector,” wrote Giovanni Bersaglio, director of operations for Berkem, a supplier of electroplating equipment and chemical solutions for the jewelry industry, based in nearby Padua. . in an email. “The center has grown thanks to the close collaboration between jewelers and technology providers, cooperation that has always been seen as fundamental for the evolution and growth of companies.”

This is especially true now, in the wake of the pandemic, which has seen demand for “Made in Italy” jewelry skyrocket along with demand for fine jewelry in general. In 2022, exports of Italian gold and silver jewelry reached 9.8 billion euros (about US$ 10.5 billion), an increase of 22.5% compared to the same period in 2021 and 40.8% compared to the same period in 2019, according to Confindustria Federorafi, a national association agency representing companies in the jewelry manufacturing sector in Italy.

Damiano Zito, chief executive of Progold, which designs and manufactures jewelry in Trissino, a small town about 15 miles west of Vicenza, said the pandemic had highlighted a problem that had plagued the Italian industry for most of the last decade: its decreasing number of skilled workers.

“After Covid, the demand for jewelry production in Italy totally exploded and now the biggest issue is finding people and goldsmiths who can help you order,” said Zito, considered a pioneer in additive manufacturing. “This has not happened in Italy since the early 2000s.”

Vicenza is one of three cities in Italy famous for jewelry making. Valenza, in the Piedmont region southwest of Milan, is home to a group of cutting-edge manufacturers specializing in gemstone jewelery (including Bulgari and Cartier, both of which have multimillion-dollar high-tech factories in Valenza and neighboring Turin). ). Arezzo, in eastern Tuscany, is best known for its mass-produced gold and silver chains, many of them destined for the Middle East.

What sets Vicenza apart from the other two hubs is the number of machinery and equipment suppliers based in and around the city, fostering the marriage of technology and tradition that has helped local businesses survive decades of globalization.

“In the 1990s, there were so many people – not just in jewelry, but everywhere – who decided it was cheaper to produce in the Far East or Eastern Europe,” said Bertoldo, from Fope, whose factory is just three kilometers away. just west of Vicenza’s central Piazza dei Signori.

“Some came back, some didn’t, but we stayed,” he added. “And staying – production has always been here, artisans, machines, R&D, everything developed here.”

Roberto Coin, whose eponymous brand produces its jewelry through a wholly owned subsidiary, La Quinta Stagione, has taken a similar approach. Its factory, set up in Vicenza in 1998, adapts technologies from the automobile industry for use in the manufacture of jewelry.

Carlo Coin, Roberto’s son and president and chief executive of La Quinta Stagione, declined to specify the techniques the company uses. “We are one of the most copied brands right now,” he said. “We have lawyers blocking Instagram sites on a daily basis. I don’t need them to know how jewelry is made. But without technology, producing jewelry in volumes at a consistent level of quality would be virtually impossible, he said.

However, he also emphasized that the brand still finishes all of its pieces by hand. “Technology can be boring and cold,” Coin said. “We want our jewelry to have life.”

This blend of innovation and tradition is key to the continued success of jewelry made in Italy, said Marco Carniello, director of global exhibition for the Jewelery and Fashion Division of the Italian Exhibition Group. The company organizes Vicenzaoro, a biannual event that is the largest gold and jewelry fair in Italy in terms of number of exhibitors and visitors.

“Now in Italy we have 7,100 companies in the jewelry industry,” Carniello said during an interview at the Vicenzaoro fair in January. “It was more or less twice as much as 10 to 15 years ago. So now it’s consolidating a lot, but those that are consolidating are full of creativity, survive many shocks, have strong ownership and keep innovating.”

As an example, he cited the T-Gold pavilion at the fair, a 100,000 square meter hall that housed around 200 exhibitors selling laser welding machines, 3D printers for resins and metals, chain manufacturing machines, among other heavy machines. . “It’s the most powerful area we have,” said Carniello.

One of the most prominent T-Gold exhibitors was Grupo Legor, a supplier of metal alloys based in the small town of Bressanvido, northeast of Vicenza.

Fabio Di Falco, Legor’s marketing and customer support manager, said the company established a strategic partnership with printer maker HP five years ago and is now experimenting with a prototype version of its new binding jet 3-D printer.

“A binder jet works like a regular inkjet, but instead of ink, we have a roller that spreads metal powder layer upon layer,” said Di Falco. “This technology allows people to create something different from existing technology. It helps them think differently and create different shapes.”

Di Falco said the biggest hurdle for Italian companies intrigued by the possibilities of direct-to-metal 3D printing was the cost of metal powders. “These presses are really big and require a huge volume of powders: about 140 kilograms,” or about 310 pounds, to operate, Di Falco said. “Imagine with gold, it’s not that cheap.”

Despite the complex barriers, Zito, chief executive of Progold, believes it is only a matter of time before additive manufacturing becomes mainstream in the jewelry industry.

“Now we are close to V1 – when the aircraft is taking off, there is a speed beyond which the pilot cannot stop the plane and has to take off,” he said. “Now additive manufacturing is going to grow more and more.”

Resistance, however, remains. Marco Bicego, a native of Vicenza, grew up in the industry (“I was born with a gold bar,” he said). His father, Giuseppe, founded a jewelry wholesale business in Trissino in 1958. In 2000, young Mr. in luxury jewelry stores in the United States and Europe.

“We are taking advantage of new technologies, like 3-D machines to make prototypes, laser machines to test diamonds, but still, 80% of our jewelry is handmade,” said Bicego.

He described a hand-carving technique that relies on an ancient tool known as a bulino, which resembles an ice pick: “The craftsman has to scratch the gold and create a line, and just to make a necklace it takes easily. 5,000 hand movements.”

The fact that many Italian jewelers like Mr. Bicego’s insistence on emphasizing their devotion to the past seems to suggest an inherent tension with the possibilities of the future.

But Claudia Piaserico, product development manager at Fope and president of the jewelry makers association Confindustria Federorafi, disputed that characterization.

“It’s not tension; it’s an opportunity,” said Piaserico at the Vicenzaoro fair in January. “Because when you manage to mix technology and craftsmanship, you make something very unique.

“That’s why Italian jewelry is different,” he added. “Because we have our heritage, we know what’s really special about us, and we also have technology to improve quality. But the last touch is always human.”


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