May 31, 2023

VICENZA, Italy – Earlier this year, Italian gold jeweler Fope introduced its new collection of Flex’it necklaces by throwing an extravagant party for about 300 guests at a 17th-century estate on the outskirts of this city in the Veneto region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. World Heritage. World Heritage Site about 50 miles west of Venice.

To emphasize the flexibility of its patented 18-karat gold mesh chains, the brand, founded here in 1929, had members of Urban Theory, a popular hip-hop dance troupe based in Milan, perform their signature tutting style — moving their limbs in dramatic angular poses . The gold chains they used as props glittered in the candlelight.

“A good performance is like a good piece of jewelry,” said Valentina Bertoldo, Fope’s content marketing manager, over the noise of the crowd. “You say, ‘Wow,’ but behind that is all this research, skill, precision, technicality.”

You could say the same about the jewelry industry around 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 jewelry museum, housed in the palatial Basilica Palladiana which dominates the main square. It’s also a hub for jewelry companies that continue to promote traditional handicrafts even as they experiment with advanced techniques like powder metallurgy – reducing precious metals to powder for use in 3D printing, or what the industry calls additive manufacturing.

It’s the kind of advancement that will enable jewelers to achieve designs impossible to achieve with traditional casting methods, ensuring both quality and consistent results.

“Vicenza is without any doubt the technological core of machine manufacturing for the gold sector,” wrote Giovanni Bersaglio, the chief operations officer at Berkem, a supplier of plating equipment and chemical solutions to the jewelry industry based in nearby Padua. in an email. “The center has grown thanks to the close collaboration between jewelry companies and technology providers, collaboration that has always been considered fundamental to the evolution and growth of the companies.”

This is especially true now, in the wake of the pandemic, which has seen demand for “Made in Italy” jewelery soar in line with the demand for fine jewelery in general. According to Confindustria Federorafi, a national association representing companies in the jewelry industry in Italy.

Damiano Zito, the CEO of Progold, which designs and produces jewelry in Trissino, a small town about 15 miles west of Vicenza, said the pandemic has highlighted a problem that has plagued Italy’s industry for most of the past decade. ravaged: the dwindling number of skilled workers.

“After Covid, the demand for jewelry production in Italy completely exploded and now the main problem is to find people and goldsmiths who can help you make the orders,” said Mr. Zito, who is considered a pioneer in the field of additive manufacturing. “This has not happened in Italy since the early 2000s.”

Vicenza is one of three cities in Italy famous for jewelry production. Valenza, in the Piemonte region southwest of Milan, is home to a cluster of high-end makers specializing in gemstone jewelry (including Bulgari and Cartier, both of which run multimillion-dollar high-tech factories in Valenza and in nearby Turin ). Arezzo, in eastern Tuscany, is best known for its mass-produced gold and silver necklaces, many destined for the Middle East.

What sets Vicenza apart from the other two centers is the number of machinery and equipment suppliers in and around the city, fostering the marriage of technology and tradition that has enabled homegrown businesses to 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,” says Ms. Bertoldo of Fope, whose factory is only three kilometers away. west of Vicenza’s central Piazza dei Signori.

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

Roberto Coin, whose eponymous brand produces its jewelry through a wholly owned subsidiary, La Quinta Stagione, took a similar approach. Founded in Vicenza in 1998, the factory adapts technologies from the automotive industry for use in jewelry making.

Carlo Coin, the son of Roberto and the 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 every day. I don’t need them to know how the jewelry is made.” But without technology, it would be nearly impossible to produce jewelry in large quantities at a consistent level of quality, he said.

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

That blend of innovation and tradition is key to the continued success of Italian-made jewellery, said Marco Carniello, the global exhibition director of the Italian Exhibition Group’s Jewelery & Fashion Division. The company hosts Vicenzaoro, a biennial event that is Italy’s largest gold and jewelery fair in terms of number of exhibitors and visitors.

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

As an example, he cited the show’s T-Gold Pavilion, a 10,000-square-foot hall with nearly 200 exhibitors selling laser welding machines, 3D printers for resins and metals, and chain-making machines, among other things. . “It’s the most powerful territory we have,” said Mr. Carniello.

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

Fabio Di Falco, Lego’s marketing and customer support manager, said the company entered into a strategic partnership with printer maker HP five years ago and is now experimenting with a prototype version of its new binderjet 3D printer.

“A binder jet works like a normal inkjet, but instead of ink we have a roller that spreads metal powders layer by layer,” said Mr. Di Falco. “With this technology people can create something different than with existing technology. It helps them think differently and create different forms.”

Mr Di Falco said the biggest obstacle for Italian companies intrigued by the possibilities of 3D printing directly into metal was the cost of the metal powders. “These printers are very large and require a huge amount of powders: about 140 kilograms,” or about 310 pounds, to operate, Mr. Di Falco said. “Imagine with gold, it’s not that cheap.”

Despite the complex barriers, Mr. Zito, the CEO of Progold, that it is only a matter of time before additive manufacturing becomes mainstream in the jewelry industry.

“Now we’re close to V1 — when the plane takes off, there’s a speed beyond which the pilot can’t stop the plane and has to take off,” he said. “Now additive manufacturing will grow more and more.”

Holdouts, however, persist. Born in Vicenza, Marco Bicego grew up in the industry (“I was born with a bar of gold,” he said). His father, Giuseppe, founded a jewelery wholesale business in Trissino in 1958. In 2000, the younger Mr. Bicego took the lessons he learned working in a bank for his father, modernized the designs and founded his own eponymous brand, now sold in luxury jewelry stores across the United States and Europe.

“We use new technologies such as 3D machines to make prototypes, laser machines to test diamonds, yet 80 percent of our jewelry is made by hand,” said Mr. Bicego.

He described a hand-engraving technique that relies on an ancient tool known as the bulino, which resembles an ice pick: “The craftsman has to scratch the gold and draw a line, and just to make a necklace there are soon 5,000 movements of the hands.”

That many Italian jewelers like Mr. Bicego insist on emphasizing their commitment to the past seems to indicate an inherent tension with the possibilities of the future.

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

“It’s not tension; it is an opportunity,” Ms. Piaserico said at the Vicenzaoro fair in January. “Because if you know how to mix technology and craft, you create something very unique.

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