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Jewelry: Rome Revisited

Elizabeth Helman Minchilli

“Shiny gold is for peasants!” declares Roman jeweler Massimo Maria Melis. To illustrate his point, he hands me a heavy gold chain set with a patinated ancient Roman coin. The links glow, radiating a rich, antiqued yellow golden hue. Glow, yes—shine, never. The handmade chain appears soft to the touch, and each strike of the jeweler’s mallet can be felt in every link’s rough, almost sculptural texture.

Melis attributes his statement about shiny gold to the 19th-century jewelers Fratelli Castellani. “They realized that it takes a certain level of sophistication to be seduced by jewelry that doesn’t shine and twinkle,” he explains. The Castellani brothers were the preeminent jewelers in Rome at the time. They single handedly revived the skills, techniques, and style of ancient Roman jewelry, which proved immensely popular with both the local aristocracy and Grand Tour travelers to Rome. But, of course, tastes change with the times. As the style fell out of fashion, the skills that the Castellanis had resurrected were again lost over the course of the following century. That is, until Melis found his calling.

“I had the great luck to be able to handle and hold many museum pieces,” says Melis, a former theatrical set designer whose friends include museum curators and antiquities dealers. “The weight, texture, and color [of those pieces] have nothing in common with modern jewelry making.” Realizing that no one since Fratelli Castellani had even attempted to recapture the golden art of ancient Rome, Melis began crafting one-of-a-kind pieces on his jeweler’s bench at home. As the small group of friends who collected his creations grew into a large and loyal client base, his hobby blossomed into a full-blown business.

Melis’ jewelry is distinguished by both technique and design. He works predominantly in 21-karat gold—the exact formula is his alone. “In the 19th century, every goldsmith had his own gold percentage that was unique to his work,” he explains. The extremely high gold content used by Melis is lower, however, than the soft and fragile 24-karat gold used in ancient Rome.

His classical yet modern designs are what really set Melis apart and keep his phone and fax humming with calls from his international clientele. “I reinterpret ancient designs,” says Melis. “I never copy.” His inspiration is always antiquity—but that is only the impetus. While some of his heavy chains and bracelets appear antique to the untrained eye, they are really his own designs. The most intriguing pieces incorporate genuine fragments of ancient Rome. A bronze coin, a cameo, or even a bit of azure and yellow imperial glass might serve as the focal point of a brooch, necklace, bracelet, or pair of earrings.

About 40 percent of Melis’ jewelry is custom-made. Some clients bring their own ancient coins or stones for him to set. Others, like American writers David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell, explore Melis’ treasure trove of loose coins and carved stones. “We chose a magnificent carnelian and worked together with Massimo on the design of a ring,” says Leavitt. Mitchell adds, “Massimo Maria Melis is the only store in Rome that induces a kind of madness in me.”  —elizabeth helman minchilli

Massimo Maria Melis, +39.06.686.9188 (telephone and fax)

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