Long before graphic tees and novelty cups sullied the memorabilia market, micromosaics were the original must-have Italian souvenir. They took off in the 18th century when a few enterprising mosaicists employed by the Vatican found that Grand Tour-ing aristos, including Napoleon and Catherine the Great, would pay top dollar for miniature re-creations of the tiled masterpieces seen at the papal pile—a kind of proto-photo. In the centuries since, such skilled practitioners have all but vanished and micromosaics have become a rarity seldom seen outside of antiques shops.
Growing up in Rome, Maurizio Fioravanti collected ancient bits of marble and toyed with the idea of fashioning them into small-scale artworks. Thirty years later, he is one of the few contemporary micromosaicists. Entirely self-taught, Fioravanti combines old-world techniques with cutting-edge materials for Vamgard, a jewelry collection he launched in 2015. Because of the painstaking work that goes into each design, Fioravanti creates fewer than 10 pieces annually—making his mosaics more precious than many gems.
1. The Big Idea
Working out of his studio in the city, Fioravanti begins at the drawing board. Before he knows what kind of jewel he’ll make, he often does a rough sketch of the scene he envisions for the piece’s tiled elements. While he does think as a jeweler, Fioravanti says, “for me, the most important thing is the magical realism” of the art.
2. Supporting Cast
Once his vision has taken shape, Fioravanti experiments with materials to complement the mosaic. He often juxtaposes the ancient craft with distinctly modern metals, such as titanium, carbon fiber or even surgical-grade steel. He drafts a technical drawing of the design, detailing how the most complex mechanical parts can be engineered into a three-dimensional jewel.
3. A Woman’s Touch
Vamgard was cofounded with Virginie Torroni, a Geneva-based gem dealer. Fioravanti consults her on which stones to feature and how the design appeals to a woman. “After the crash test” of finding the mounting material, Fioravanti says, “you have the Virginie test.”
4. Sticking Point
Because every mosaic is mounted on a different metal, each one requires a unique adhesive. Fioravanti tinkers with his own formulations to ensure that the minuscule tiles will stay securely in place for generations to come.
5. More Than the Rainbow
The tiny tiles, or tesserae, that make up each mosaic begin as slabs of mineral-rich, opaque glass that Fioravanti custom-colors and fires himself. Determining the palette for each design is a crucial step, as the nuances in hues are what Fioravanti uses to create illusions of light and shadow. As he says, “I paint with the tesserae as my brush.”
6. Going to Pieces
The glass slabs are hand-cut into individual tiles that vary from 3 mm to one-tenth of a mm thick. Fioravanti makes the tesserae into shapes and sizes specific to the design he’s creating—say, the whisker of a cat or the crest of a wave. A mosaic can require thousands of individual tiles.
7. Stage Setting
Fioravanti introduced the art of micromosaic on curved surfaces. Because his mosaics need to hug the contours of a wrist or dangle from an ear, Fioravanti often calls on his architecture background when building the frame in which the tiles will be arranged.
8. Ready, Steady
When it comes to setting the mosaic, the artist’s primary tools are “very tiny pincers and very long patience.” He begins with the most critical element of a design, like the pupil of an eye, and builds from there. The process takes anywhere from three months to three years. “When you work in one centimeter,” he says, “you lose the sense of time.”
9. Shine On
The completed mosaic is polished to a velvety finish and handed off to nearby goldsmiths, with whom Fioravanti collaborates on the gem-setting andconstruction of the finished jewel. It’s a labor of love. “For me,” Fioravanti says, “normal jewelry is beautiful but boring.