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Florence, Italy: Casa dell'Orafo (House of Goldsmiths)
Hand-Crafted Diamond Ring by Pietro Beneforti
Work in Progress
Cuttlefish Mold (Renaissance Technique)
Tools of the Trade
Florence is internationally known for leather goods, artisan paper, and GOLD. Millions of tourists flock to the oldest bridge in the city (Ponte Vecchio) to visit the jewelry shops where gold and gemstones are flamboyantly displayed.
Prior to the gold shops there were butchers on the bridge. In the 16th century, after the construction of the Vasari corridor, Francesco de' Medici convinced the magistrates to have the butchers relocated to another part of the city.
The reason? The vile stench of offal and rotting meat offended his fastidious wife, Joanna of Austria. Also, it would be unseemly to lead visiting officials and dignitaries through a stinky passageway. The goldsmiths of the city were invited to ply their trade on the bridge, and they have been there ever since.
TIP: stroll down the Ponte Vecchio, look all you want (drool, even), but shop around before you buy. The gold shops on the bridge pay very high rents and need to employ salespeople. Those expenses may be reflected in the price of their wares. In other words, you can get the same excellent quality elsewhere in the city.
Once upon a time, there were goldsmiths all along the river's edge, too. Unfortunately, during WWII the Germans bombed the area, leaving nothing but rubble.
The Casa dell'Orafo (House of Goldsmiths) was created after the war to accommodate the displaced goldsmiths who lost their shops. Once a convent (adjacent to the Church of Santo Stefano), the historic building now houses studios where professional artisans do everything from repairs to engraving to designing.
Pietro Beneforti and his wife, Roberta Salacone, have 72 years of experience between the two of them (45 and 27 respectively), and create high-end, unique pieces for exclusive clients.
When I visited their studio, I noticed photographs of Bill & Hillary Clinton. Pietro explained that he designed a pair of earrings for Hillary during her husband's presidency. During an official visit to Italy, Hillary took a quick trip to the Casa dell'Orafo to pick up her earrings in person and meet the man who made them.
For research purposes, I asked several questions about jewelry making techniques during the Renaissance. Pietro kindly demonstrated how goldsmiths fashioned molds out of cuttlefish bone (I provided a photo).
A wooden or metal form was pressed into the soft "bone" thus creating an indented shape. The goldsmith would then carve out a little cavity where the molten metal could be poured into the mold.
The studio that Pietro and Roberta share was recently featured on a RAI documentary, as well as a documentary in Japan. Unfortunately, they do not operate as a "store" where people can simply walk in and buy things.
Although the door on the ground level is open to the public, their studio is upstairs, away from view. Besides, they are busily working on commissions.
I hope this article inspires you to visit Florence and watch the artisans at work. As always, thank you for reading!