If any type of jewellery could call itself a true work of art it would be the micro mosaic. Tiny glass tiles (called tesserae) are crafted together and placed carefully into cement to produce incredible ‘micro mosaic’ pictures, which are then set into jewellery. Micro mosaic work date back over 2000 years, and usually originates from Europe – Italy being its most famous producer. Micro mosaic work also has an established history in the Middle East too, but for this guide I’ll be concentrating on Italian mosaic work.
A Brief History of Mosaics
The height of popularity for the micro mosaic was in the 17th to 19th Century, during a period of time called the Grand Tour era. Men and women of rich European families would travel around Europe, taking in the sights and cultures of different countries. Italy was a very popular tourist spot as it had a long and prestigious history in arts and culture – a favourite subject in aristocratic circles. It was also a famous glass wear producer, and canny Italian craftsmen quickly turned their glass making skills into making stunning miniature pictures out of glass tiles for their rich tourists.
Micro mosaic work jewellery of this period usually depicted famous Italian landmarks such as Vatican Square or the Collusium, though occasionally Roman mythology was a subject too. The richest tourists would even commission their own mosaics, with flowers, animals or famous works of art being a favourite subject. The small size of the micro mosaic was particularly appealing; they could be worn on the Grand Tourists continuing journey, or sent back home to loved ones as a kind of fore-runner to our modern postcards. By the early 20th Century the micro mosaic heyday was nearing its end, with the higher quality jewellery ceasing to be made. Micro mosaics still continue to be produced, though usually in much cruder forms which normally depict simple flowers.
Types of Micro Mosaic
Mosaic: Also known as standard mosaic, it dates from the late 19th Century to today. These are the items of mosaic jewellery you normally see. Glass tiles are quite large and chunky, often resembling millefiori glass cabochons rather than actual individual tile pictures. Oval or round brooches are common, as are bold bracelets and simple earrings. Sometimes brooches are in the shape of guitars or crucifixes. Most people start their collection with this type of jewellery, as it is more affordable and durable enough to wear everyday.
ABOVE: A crucifix standard mosaic pendant, made in the year 2000 in celebration of Christ’s birth.
Micro Mosaic: Also known as Roman or true micro mosaic, these are much finer quality than Standard Mosaics, sometimes having many tiny tiles per inch. The finished micro mosaic was fixed into a setting such as French Jet or Aventurine Goldstone, and would sometimes be of such high quality it could pass as a painted picture. Because of its delicate nature very few true micro mosaics are nowadays in perfect condition – small chips, cracks or odd missing tiles are quite normal. Be prepared to pay a lot of money for a high quality and good condition micro mosaic if you find one!
Pietra Dura: Also known as Florentine (Florence was a major producer of this type of mosaic work). This craft is slightly different than the others. Small and very thin slices of genuine stone (such as marble, agate or lapis lazuli) were inlaid into a larger flat stone to create a simple yet contrasting coloured design. Flowers were the most common subject, with light coloured petals contrasting with a black stone background being a particular favourite. Again, this was highly skilled work, and good quality pietra dura brooches command a high price today.
ABOVE: An antique Victorian pietra dura brooch. Note how the slithers of green gemstone and marble have been carefully chosen for there colour gradient, which gives a natural appearance to the leaves.
Micro mosaics are most often made into brooches, though occasionally you’ll find mosaic earrings and bracelets too. Rare micro mosaic work can be found on rings, and micro mosaic necklaces are the most sought after. When choosing a micro mosaic to buy, always check to see if the tiles are all present; missing pieces can affect the price and desirability of an item. Also, study the metal – vintage micro mosaics are notorious for being infected with verdigris, which is a chemical reaction between the atmospheric conditions and copper metals in the jewellery. If you can see even the tiniest of green marks anywhere on the metal of the mosaic then you may have the dreaded verdigris, and it’s best to avoid the item. Verdigris is corrosive, will eventually eat away at and destroy your item, and may even infect any other items of jewellery that come into contact with it.
Looking After Your Micro Mosaic Jewellery
Never soak your jewellery in water as this can damage the cement holding the tiles in place. If you mosaic is very dirty and needs cleaning, quickly scrub it very gently for a few seconds using diluted washing up liquid and a soft toothbrush. Rinse and dry immediately.