Modern micromosaic pieces just can't compare to the laborious and painstaking art form that was 19th-century micromosaic-making. They were a particular specialty of Rome, coming to the height of their popularity around 1800-1870. In those times, a micromosaic could be composed of anywhere between hundreds and thousands of tiny pieces, each applied skillfully by hand using a pair of tweezers, to create impressively intricate and beautiful scenes.
A brooch with silver-gilt filigree resembling spiraled string, set with an octagonal Roman micromosaic of a bird on a branch, possibly a pheasant, composed of minute tesserae, c.1820-30
The Making of Micromosaic Jewelry
Micromosaics are miniature mosaics made using what is called 'smalto' or 'smalti' - opaque vitreous glass or enamel that comes in a wide variety of colors and replicates the appearance of a non-reflective painted surface. The material is melted and pulled into rods or threads, called 'filati' (spun enamel). Once these rods or threads have cooled, they are cut into hundreds of tiny cubes, known as 'tesserae'. The tesserae are then arranged in a copper or gold tray into the desired scene or image.
The base of a micromosaic piece is usually made of either metal or stone (with black Belgian marble, 'Noir Belge', being a popular choice). These are then filled with mastic or cement, and the tesserae are carefully arranged on top of this using a pair of tweezers and a great deal of skill and patience. Once the mastic or cement has hardened, the gaps between the tesserae are filled with colored wax and the whole picture is polished to achieve a smooth and even surface. Micromosaic pieces intended for jewelry were often oval or circular plaques set into pendants, necklaces, earrings, brooches, and rings. The pieces were often made in Rome and then exported to London or Paris to be mounted in jewelry.
Finger ring with a rectangular swiveling gold bezel, its cut corners inset with a micromosaic plaque depicting an antique urn, Rome, c.1800. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Italian micromosaic gold ring of two birds, c.1810. The ring is marked with 18ct French marks
From Peter Szuhay
A rectangular, gold-mounted micromosaic snuffbox with canted corners, the cover with a mosaic depicting a polar bear and a hound playing with an apple under a tree, the base with a mosaic of a stag and a hind and a chariot, probably Rome, c.1800
The art of micromosaics is said to have originated at the Vatican. When some of the famous paintings in St. Peter’s Basilica began to deteriorate due to damp clouds developing, thoughts turned to the mosaics of ancient Rome that had retained their color and impact for thousands of years. Vatican artists began to experiment with ways of replicating the damaged paintings using mosaic techniques, eventually managing to create some 28,000 different hues of tesserae to do so. By 1770, nearly all of the paintings in the basilica had been replaced with almost indistinguishable mosaic copies, built to last. Soon afterward, some of the artists who had been involved began to apply their skills to making miniature mosaic art using teeny tiny pieces of tesserae - portable artworks that could be sold to the private market and set into jewelry.
Mosaic interior of the dome of St Peter's Basilica
Via Walks in Rome
It's believed that micromosaic jewelry went out of style in the late 19th century when the huge demand for such pieces saw an influx of workers to Rome who weren’t skilled in the art and began making poor quality versions. These low-quality pieces flooded the market and damaged the industry significantly.
While micromosaics in their traditional sense originated in Rome, another kind of micromosaic known as 'pietra dura' - literally 'hard stone' - was becoming popular in Florence. Although they are often included under the umbrella of micromosaics, the key difference between Florentine pietra dura and micromosaics from Rome is the use of bits of polished and thinly sliced stone, carved into specific shapes and fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, instead of glass or enamel tesserae. These were often set into marble and framed with metal. Artisans would use semi-precious stones like agate, lapis lazuli, jasper, and chalcedony as well as stones like malachite, carnelian, and quartz, which mimicked the delicate webbing and color shifts of wings and petals - creating stunning visual illusions.
Victorian pietra dura earrings with mirrored birds, set in 18k yellow gold Etruscan revival frames, c.1870
Beautiful and rare late Victorian Pietra Dura set by 'Pierre Bazzanti Et Fils', a famous workshop in Florence that specialized in Pietro Dura and fine stonework. The set comprises earrings, a bracelet, studs, and a brooch/pendant. The subject - Entomology
19th-century Italian gold Pietra Dura bracelet depicting butterflies and other insects, Italy c.1875
A yellow gold, polychrome enamel and multi-gem butterfly motif Pietra Dura swag necklace
When Florentine micromosaicists began to favor more brightly colored and striking materials like turquoise and mother of pearl, the pieces lost a lot of the depth and realism that they had been loved for, and soon fell out of fashion. That's why the materials used in pietra dura pieces can often be used to date them and determine their value.
The Grand Tour
With the end of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, and the revolutionary wars surrounding this, it was finally safe to travel again to the Continent. This also coincided with an increase of wealth across Europe and a growing merchant class, meaning that travel to Europe was no longer limited to the upper classes and aristocracy. Soon, British and American tourists flocked to Europe's cultural capitals - Paris, Rome, and Florence - on what was known as the 'Grand Tour'.
The 'Grand Tour' became a kind of right of passage for nobility seeking to improve and expand their education. They went to these places in order to soak up the culture and history there, and it soon became extremely fashionable to send or bring back souvenirs and mementos from these lengthy trips. A particular favorite for Grand Tourers were beautiful, portable pieces of micromosaic jewelry, many of which were made expressly for this purpose. By 1817, the Scottish traveler Charlotte Eaton recorded that there were 'hundreds of artists, or rather artisans, who carry on the manufactory of mosaics on a small scale' around the Piazza di Spagna.
With the origins of micromosaics in the Vatican, some particularly wealthy tourists could even gain themselves custom micromosaic pieces from the papal jeweler if they made a substantial enough donation to the Catholic Church.
Some of the most common pieces of micromosaic jewelry featured famous Italian landmarks such as the Colosseum and St. Peter's Basilica, as well as figures from ancient Roman mythology and scenes of bucolic Italian peasant life. Many were also inspired by famous paintings by the Old Masters or contemporary landscape paintings. However, the most sought-after and possibly the most impressive pieces (in my opinion) are those depicting flowers, birds, and other animals.
Motifs from Antiquity
Pair of gold and micromosaic bracelets and a brooch, each depicting Cupid in a chariot drawn by deer, lions, or doves, surrounded by frames of gold cannetille, joined to clasps of rose motif in silver, rose, and yellow gold, c.1800-1830. Via Sotheby's
Micromosaic chariot pulled by butterflies, c.1800. This high-quality micromosaic was most likely the top of a metal box and was later turned into a pendant. The lid is marked J.COLA for Giacinto (Jacinto) Cola, one of the best mosaicists active in Rome at the beginning of the 19th century. Butterflies are a common representation of Psyche, while Cupid is frequently shown with wings and his symbols are the arrow and torch, "because love wounds and inflames the heart." This depiction is unusual because Cupid is represented by a bird, but the torch in the chariot would be symbolic of Cupid
A Roman micromosaic plaque depicting a putto in the guise of Bacchus with an attendant holding aloft a basket of grapes within a circular black ground, set within a square giltwood frame, c.1860-70
A gold and micromosaic locket depicting a putto amongst swans and flowers within a gold rope-twist and beaded frame, with hairwork in a compartment on the reverse, c.1865
An antique micromosaic and gold bangle with a multi-colored mosaic of cupid in a border of red and blue flowers, c.1860. Via Bonhams
Doves of Pliny
An important early inspiration for micromosaics, both in terms of subject and technique, was the 'Doves of Pliny'. This was an ancient mosaic made of marble tesserae, discovered at Hadrian’s villa outside of Rome in 1737, and is one of the finest examples of an ancient mosaic ever found. It was actually a Roman copy of an even earlier work by Sosos, a Greek artist (2nd century A.D.).
Antique Victorian Pliny's Doves lapis pietra dura 14k gold pin brooch
From Ruby Lane via Pinterest
Brooch and matching earrings with pietra dura mosaic depicting the 'Doves of Pliny' and gold settings decorated with applied wirework - by Messrs Giocondo Torrini, Florence, c.1860-1870
Victorian pietra dura mosaic brooch of Pliny's Doves set in lapis lazuli
Micromosaic of two lovebirds
Micromosaic brooch of a white dove with a green branch in its beak against a red groud bordered with dark blue. Gold and black enamel setting. Inscribed on back 'CLWF; Septr. 10, 1863.'
Via the Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Three Italian gold-mounted micromosaic buttons, probably made in Rome, workshop of Giacomo Raffaelli, c.1785. Via Christie's
An Italian 14kt gold ring with an octagonal micromosaic on copper of two birds on a branch with a dark blue background, c.1790-1800. From galleriatanca via Pinterest
A pair of drop micromosaic earrings each depicting a bird on a branch with a butterfly on a black background set on red porpurine glass with gold mounting. The top part is decorated with a micromosaic of a flowers baske, Rome, c.1820. From galleriatanca via Pinterest
Gold and micromosaic bracelet composed of six graduated oval micromosaic plaques, each depicting doves, connected by curb link chains, c.1800s. Via Sotheby's
Micromosaic brooch, earrings, and pendant, c.1850-70
19th-century Italian gold hexagonal cut micromosaic ring depicting a bird on a black background within a reeded bordered later rose gold mount, c.1860s
An early 19th-century micromosaic brooch of a hen with her five chicks, in a gold surmount with a scrolling engraved foliate motif. Via Bonhams
Italian gold-mounted bonbonniere set with a micromosaic of two butterflies by Giacomo Sirletti (1755-1837), Rome, c.1800. Via Christie's
Italian Micromosaic brooch, c.1870
Cats & Dogs
Micromosaic of a spaniel using curved tesserae to create the texture of fur, c.1830s
Victorian hardstone micromosaic depicting a pair of King Charles spaniels, set within a rectangular-shaped black onyx tablet measuring and framed by 18k gold. Property of the Cecilia H. Caldwell Trust. Via jewelry.ha
Rare Georgian micromosaic Halley's comet gold brooch with two dogs, c.1790s
Micromosaic dog from 1stdibs via Pinterest
An early 19th-century micromosaic brooch depicting a King Charles spaniel, seated in a landscape setting, to mount with stylized laurel wreath border, back possibly re-mounted with a later brooch fitting
A micromosaic of a poodle, Italian, c.1850
Via Hamshere Gallery
A round micromosaic in a golden copper frame, depicting a hunting dog, Rome, c.1810-20
An Italian bonbonniere set with a micromosaic plaque by Pietro Belli, with the micromosaic by Pietro Belli, Rome, c.1785-1800. Via Christie's
An oval tortoiseshell, gold, and copper snuffbox, the cover set with an oval micromosaic depicting a black and white spaniel dog sitting in a field with a landscape in the background and the trunk of a small tree to the left. The image is signed by the artist in tesserae
Oval micromosaic panel, probably from the top of a box. Italian, c.1810
From Peter Szuhay
Micromosaic demi-parure in the style of Antonion Aguatti - earrings and pendant, the earrings each with a butterfly and birds in the hearts, all different, the pendant in the shape of a heart with a dog surrounded by flowers and the text "fidelité", Rome, c.1830
A 19th-century Italian polished slate micromosaic paperweight depicting a cat chasing a ball in a garden
Micromosaic brooch depicting Cupid in a chariot drawn by a pair of stags on a black background, c.1800
Oval micromosaic set in black glass with a gold frame in the Neo-classical style. The micromosaic depicts a stag running across a patch of foliage, its figure silhouetted against the black glass background, c.1825
Gold micromosaic earrings depicting a rabbit, ladybug, dog, and cat, c.1875
Antique gold and micromosaic cuff bangle set with symbolic Christian imagery. The kneeling deer, represents piety and devotion, faces towards a lamb holding a white flag with a red cross, symbolizing Agnus Dei, a representation of the triumph of Christ. The red cross symbolizes the blood shed by Christ, juxtaposed by the lamb, representing Christ's purity and holiness. Via Doyle
Victorian 18k yellow gold micromosaic bracelet with Vatican hallmarks, mid-19th century
A micromosaic brooch depicting a pouncing leopard, c.1800
Micromosaic depicting a rat, which is part of a micromosaic and garnet silver necklace
Famous Makers & Buyers
Although the names of many mosaicists were never recorded, there are several notable mosaicists who became fairly famous during the height of micromosaic popularity. One of these was Castellani, a jewelry firm that specialized in archeological jewelry, inspired by the archaeological discoveries being made at the time, particularly mosaics found in early Christian and Byzantine churches. Many of their pieces incorporated Greek or Latin inscriptions and were set in lavish and ornate gold work.
A circular micromosaic depicting a green and red parrot on a branch with a blue and white enamel border stamped CC for Castellani
Victorian Medusa micomosaic brooch with gold and glass tesserae, by Castellani and Sons, Rome
Victorian micromosaic brooch with Hand of God by Castellani and Sons, Rome. Gold and glass tesserae
Giacomo Raffaelli (1753-1836) was also a notable mosaicist and is considered to be one of the founding fathers of micromosaics. He was amongst the first to incorporate them into jewelry and is particularly well known for being commissioned by Napoleon I in 1809 to create a mosaic copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. It actually wasn't finished until after Napoleon's abdication in 1814, so was sold instead to another prestigious buyer - Francis II of Austria. Micromosaic jewelry enjoyed great popularity across Europe, and both of Napoleon’s empresses are said to have owned micromosaic parures.
A late 18th-century 'Grand Tour' micromosaic medallion depicting a finch seated on a branch on a rocky outcrop, by Giacomo Raffaelli, dated 1788 and later mounted as a brooch
A late 18th-century double-sided micromosaic ring, possibly by Giacomo Raffaelli. Depicting a butterfly to one side and a goldfinch to the other. From Woolley & Wallis Jewellery via Instagram
Circular agate box and cover with gold rims and a micromosaic of a greyhound sitting against a pale blue sky. Engraved inside with Prince of Wales's feathers, motto, and AE. Gifted to Edward VII when Prince of Wales in 1888, c.1800-30, attributed to Giacomo Raffaelli
In England, a group of artisans led by the sixth Duke of Devonshire (William Cavendish), tried their hand at making Florentine pietra dura which the Duke had seen in Florence during his Grand Tour. They used local colored marble and other local stone such as feldspar and black Derbyshire marble to make cross-or-oval-shaped brooches and pendants decorated with floral or insect motifs. These pieces were often bought by tourists visiting the area, including a young Princess Victoria, who bought such a piece when she traveled there in 1826.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), the famous British poet who lived out the latter part of her life in Italy, loved micromosaic jewelry. It's said that her favorite treasure was a micromosaic brooch which featured prominently in her portrait, painted in Italy in 1858.
In the 19th-century, laboriously and lovingly crafted micromosaic pieces fitted into jewelry were the perfect souvenir. To bring one back from Italy or France and show it off on your finger, neck, or ear was practically a guarantee that you would exude an air of culture, sophistication, and historical knowledge.