Embedded with diamonds, colored sapphires and other precious gems, the Italian designer Francesca Villa’s 18-karat gold jewels are enlivened by intriguing artifacts such as miniature antique toy figurines, 19th century carved glass buttons and reverse intaglio carvings sourced in antique shops, flea markets and elsewhere. “Francesca Villa’s collectors and I all love her storytelling as much as the way her jewels breathe new life into small, exquisite found objects from different eras and cultures,” says Valery Demure, founder of the online jewelry site Objetdemotion and the Marylebone, London gallery of the same name, both of which showcase Villa’s jewels. “I find her concepts truly poignant and they embody impeccable craftsmanship.”
In the narrative of jewelry history, Villa’s one-of-a-kind and limited edition creations arise from a cosmopolitan, bohemian vein that’s reminiscent of the one mined by 20th century Sicilian jeweler Fulco di Verdura. Juxtaposing compelling gem materials with emotionally impactful yet prosaic objects like antique chess pieces, miniature paintings and seashells, Verdura excelled at glorifying repurposed elements in his luxurious adornments. In Villa’s view, however, she designs jewels that contain repurposed materials from throughout history “that echo the heartbeat of other people’s lives in their full evocative force”. Paul Schneider, owner of Seattle and Portland–based TWIST jewelry boutiques, attests to the evocative power of Villa’s designs: “Each piece Francesca makes is a poem, a tiny story of moments from a previous world. Simple, beautiful, yet dressed up. Her jewels are joyful and precious.”
According to Villa, “The past is an inexhaustible source of inspiration which, thanks to my collections of objets trouvés, is continually renewed and brought back to life without ever repeating itself,” she says. “Each piece tells a story, a kind of unique and unrepeatable story that excites and amazes my clients.” Evoking such disparate emotions as, “joy, fun, melancholy and wonder, I combine feelings in my jewels that are sometimes antithetical to each other,” Villa ventures. “And it is precisely this complexity that indissolubly binds people to my jewels.”
In a world heaving with globally branded “luxury jewels” that are mass produced, Villa’s jewels bridge the worlds of fine and applied arts. As Villa tells it, “My challenge is to conceive and create pieces, each of which contain a world in miniature. My pieces embody the unexpected, including ironic encounters that catch you unaware. I create jewels from relics of human experiences.” For example, Villa’s Joie de Vivre sapphire, ruby and topaz earrings are centered with miniature cast metal, tiny toy soldiers that glow with antique. childlike innocence. It is only on reflection that one remembers that boys who play with toy soldiers grow up to fight real bloody; deadly wars. Villa produces one-of-a-kind jewels as well as high concept collections, such as Close Encounters, which is her latest.
All of Villa’s jewels are made in Italy in an atelier founded in 2016 with “two other talented and valuable partners. My brand,” she relates, “was born in 2007 with my first collection, ‘Travel Diary,” which consisted of 30 unique pieces, each of which contained an objet trouvé collected during my travels.” The initial planning phase of her work takes place in her studio in Solonghello, Italy, followed by production in her Valenza atelier. “There, by working side by side with 3D designers every day,” Villa explains, “I’m able to continue my work with the help of creative goldsmiths whose support is paramount in achieving my aesthetic aims.”
A case in point are Villa’s rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets that contain vintage, antique and new Essex crystals, a visually compelling but highly labor-intensive form of jewelry also referred to as ‘reverse intaglios’. (Villa’s new Close Encounters collection of reverse intaglios was created by artisans under her supervision.) Comprised of a colorless clear rock crystal quartz cabochon that’s been carved with a design on its flat side, a reverse intaglio or Essex crystal contains precisely painted; realistic details that fill the carved design with color to create a three dimensional, trompe l’oeil image. (The back is sealed in order to protect and preserve the painted areas.) Many historians date the reverse intaglio technique to 1860-era Belgium, as an artist there named Emile Marius signed some reverse intaglio pieces.
“What fascinates me the most about Essex crystal or reverse intaglio pieces,” Villa relates, “is the fact that in a small cabochon of only 13 mm, it is possible to paint and portray an entire universe, a world of its own.” These pieces involve a highly specialized, guarded applied art that has traditionally been handed down from father to son, artisan to apprentice. In Essex crystal, Villa continues, the attention to detail is obsessive not only in the highly skilled and time-intensive creation of the engraving, but also in the careful choice of vivid enamel colours. “Today, only few master carvers are able to create reverse intaglio pieces. It is thanks to these masters that I was able to create my Close Encounters Collection.”
Villa’s new reverse intaglio designs in 18-karat gold include miniature painted scenes (created with acupuncture needles) that are also kinetic compositions. For example, her ‘Mermaid and The Sea’ ring embodies a painting of a mermaid’s tail and a floating cherry, all within a graceful 18-karat gold setting. On the right side of the ring, however, a tiny drawer, replete with a golden knob, slides out to reveal a continuation of the mermaid tail painting. Other fanciful reverse intaglio painted pieces encased in clear rock crystal include the ‘Whales in Wonderland’ necklace. In this piece, a happy-looking white whale swims beneath the azure waves while a white tea cup hovers surrealistically above the water’s edge. While the plaque’s bezel is studded with colored sapphires, the 18-karat gold chain is set at intervals with cabochon cut, candy-colored sapphires.
Given that her jewels contain disparate cultural artifacts as well as myriad references to the natural world, it makes perfect sense that Villa finds it impossible to categorize her clients who commission pieces and collectors who purchase her jewels in boutiques, galleries or online.” Weirdly enough,” she says with a laugh, “I don’t have an ideal client. I am often amazed at how my jewels can appeal to completely different types of people. This is why it is difficult to identify a favorite kind of customer.”
What does seem to characterize those who wear or collect Villa’s jewels, however, is an appreciation of narrative jewelry that enhances the wearer’s sense of self and a love of adornment that is self-generated, rather than trend-powered. “I see in the people who wear my jewels a shared desire to express their personality in a strong and authentic way, free from fashion and clichés,” she muses. Because relatively few of today’s designers have created an oeuvre that comes close to embodying and transmitting Villa’s complex aesthetic power and technical finesse, her work is as important as it is enchanting.