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Bewitched, Bothered, and Buccellati'd

The Buccellatis are determined to keep the business of making fine jewelry where it belongs: all in the family.

Here was a moment that summer in 1940, and he remembers it clearly, very precisely: his father on the balcony; the heat of the Italian summer; the birds twittering at dusk. Eleven-year-old Gianmaria Buccellati was ready to show his father his first jewelry design. As he tells it, you can smell the heat, hear the birds, feel the heaviness of that hot, faraway Milanese evening. "My father is in a chair on the balcony, and my first design is a ring, very modern, and I present it to him, and he says, 'Not bad.' In my mind I think, I can design now." Four years later, Gianmaria went to work in the Buccellati shop, following his father as his son Andrea follows him. "In this family," Gianmaria says, "it is like breathing air."

This is very particular air. Somehow the Buccellatis grab it and use it to breathe life into the astonishing, rare, expensive jewels they make: a cognac-colored topaz brooch with diamonds set in yellow gold; a heavy, sensuous cuff bracelet with aquamarines the color of icy lake water and plenty of diamonds set in white gold. There are wedding bands, the gold worked like webbing, like fabric or net with diamonds caught in it. There are large rings (cocktail rings, your mother would have called them): a huge aquamarine; a rubellite the color of cherry sorbet that might have come from an extravagant box of Cracker Jack; a tanzanite bluer than sapphires so elaborately set with diamonds that, as someone said, "it's like an entire world."

There are, of course, more serious pieces in gold and diamonds, the gold always intricately engraved, embossed, like the $1.5 million Millennium necklace with $275,000 matching earrings that took two and a half years to make. These are big-occasion baubles but light as air when you try them on. It is color, though, that Gianmaria Buccellati adores, and he's one of the few great jewelers who pioneered the use of odd and semiprecious stones in pieces where diamonds are the supporting cast rather than the other way around.

"Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, the quality of the stone is fine," Buccellati says. "But I like strange stones that will be valuable one day, perhaps a yellow garnet, which is rare. I like the kind where you can buy only one. I like color. Blue and green. I like this combination very much," says the man who's even had his car painted blue and green. "I am crazy for the beauty."

Buccellati is synonymous with big gorgeous jewels, with various styles of traditional engraving, with handcrafted silver pieces and impeccably handmade flatware. When you look at the firm's voluptuous pieces and think of the Renaissance and of Benvenuto Cellini, it is no accident. Gianmaria Buccellati sees himself as the heir to this tradition: In his designs, in the way his artisans work, there is a clear and formidable line back hundreds of years. This is craft as art; this is design on a grand scale, but never mass-produced. (Sixty percent of the pieces the company produces are unique; the rest are rarely copied more than a few times.)

At a Smithsonian exhibition celebrating Buccellati last year, some of the pieces that were displayed were what Gianmaria calls "precious objects," all now in private collections: the Cup of Muses (1981), a bowl of jade, gold, and silver encrusted with 2,027 sapphires; the Cup of Pleasure (1975), a chalice made from rock crystal, rubies, emeralds, and white, yellow, and pink gold. Of course there were jewels: the necklace with rock crystal leaves and rubies and emeralds; the dragon brooch fashioned of white gold and a fabulous yellow Mexican opal; and my favorite, the collar made of rough diamonds. Buccellati surrounded the uncut stones with cut diamonds to form jeweled anemones, and linked the flowers into an exotic necklace that's both exquisite and raw.

"One thing that stands out with Buccellati is a consistent level of workmanship in metal and stones, as well as a style maintained throughout the history of the firm," says Diana Singer, an estate jeweler who lectures on jewelry. "The styles are ageless, the workmanship incredible. The pieces have a quiet, elegant quality that blends with everything yet stands out on its own. Anyone who owns a Buccellati is very lucky. They are extremely collectible."

The business of Buccellati—owning one, being one—means that you belong to a sort of legendary little republic where family is everything. At the Milan headquarters, Gianmaria is chieftain, patriarch, Medici prince, godfather. Handsome, merry, a bon vivant, he is also a little shy. Tell him a jewel is a "masterpiece" and he smiles diffidently. There's his wife, Rosie, who works with him, his children (from his first marriage), Andrea and Maria Cristina. Down near Bologna is Gino, Gianmaria's older son, who runs the silver works. Artisans are scattered around Milan, Florence, and Venice. You feel the whole of northern Italy has been colonized by this talented, charming, artful, hard-headed family, all with a part in the dynastic operations, all imbued with the myth of the family firm. And all so good-looking you wonder what these people put in the pasta. Maria Cristina, who is the creative director, is a friendly, stylish blonde who wears little leather jackets, skinny pants, lives in a sunny apartment full of animal prints, and drives a Smart car. She has always loved the jewelry. At the Buccellati exhibition at the Smithsonian there was a huge black-opal pendant that looked like an egg netted in diamonds. "As a child I sometimes played with the rare opal egg," she says, laughing. "My father was horrified." But they are very close, you can see it when they are together. Sometimes she hops on her bike in high heels and leather pants and pedals round the corner to her pop's for dinner.

Gianmaria and Rosie Buccellati live in a Renaissance palace in the middle of Milan. Restored in the 18th century, it was once Toscanini's home. You arrive and are shown the garden outside with a magnolia tree that Gianmaria planted. In the yellow-brocade drawing room, with its French furniture, there's a table of things to drink and nibble, Champagne and salami, a hunk of succulent parmigiano, caper berries big as quail's eggs, olives, chubby breadsticks. Rosie and Maria Cristina wear only a few simple gold jewels. Dinner is in a dining room around an oval table. Oval is better for conversation, and eight is usually the best number, everyone agrees; and anything goes, any subject—travel, work, politics, shopping, kids, food, and music and art. Gianmaria is as passionate for Vermeer as he is for Dvorák and Mozart. Classical music comes through hidden speakers.

A butler in a white jacket and white gloves serves pasta with ham, spinach roulade with chicken livers and wild mushrooms. The red wine comes from a friend's vineyard in the Veneto, and there are fragoline, the little wild Italian strawberries, and—honestly—a can of Spray Pan (the Italian version of Reddi Wip). It's passed with glee—family and guests, laughing, shoot the stuff on their strawberries. After dinner, after chocolates, grappa, limoncello, and Cognac, Maria Cristina gets back on her bike.

Early next morning everyone's back at the offices on the Via Lodovico Mancini. All of the jewelry is supervised by Gianmaria and Andrea. Gianmaria begins with a sketch, a few marks on a piece of paper, then redraws it with more detail. The final version is an exact blueprint; this is cerebral work, a way of designing that's evolved over decades.

When a design is completed, it goes to one of the workshops, frequently upstairs in the same building as the offices. The ateliers here also serve as a kind of school where a new generation is trained. When I visit, master goldsmith Roberto Brown is working on a new brooch, a stylized tree made of gold with Mississippi River pearls and blue opals. He's been with the Buccellatis for almost 42 years. Working beside him is his son Christian, handsome, an earring in his ear, rock music on the radio, one of the new generation of Buccellati craftsmen.

There are workshops for the goldsmiths, for the stone setters, and for the engravers. The Buccellati style depends on a lot of engraving, the sort of work that gives the metal its characteristic texture and makes the gold, for example, look like silk or damask or marble. Each jewel goes through so many processes it literally makes your head spin—even the cleaning is done with fragile cotton threads by a highly skilled woman.

After all this, the pieces are sent to the various shops, including Buccellati's boutiques in New York and Beverly Hills. (Buccellati also sells through stores like Gump's and Bergdorf Goodman.) The firm prefers to call its clients cultured, educated, traveled, people who are interested in the arts, rather than merely rich. That's probably splitting hairs, given the big price tags on drop-dead pieces such as the diamond bracelet that looks like lace and goes for $240,000. On the other hand, maybe there's something in the Buccellati insistence that you need a "cultural reference" to understand the value of pieces often featuring oddball stones instead of plain old rocks.

In the New York shop, at least, you do see low-key people who are willing to sit and examine the jewels and have the intricate designs explained to them. Buccellati is the kind of recherché company that has attracted generations of the same family. It will redesign and remake the family jewels too. In Europe, the clientele is Old Money (which might be only 20 years old these days). In L.A., it's Old Hollywood.

All this might make Buccellati seem ancient, stiff, archaic, but it isn't. Gianmaria is the engine of this enterprise, and he's an instinctive businessman and the primary shareholder of a privately held company. (His wife, the three children, and a nephew are the others.) This is one of the last great family-owned luxury businesses, and Gianmaria plays it close to the dynastic chest: He never reveals the financial details of the company, nor does he have to. There was a rumor that Bernard Arnault and LVMH were interested, but Buccellati says such rumors are unfounded.

Gianmaria Buccellati has no interest in giving up family control over the business. He does not say it in so many words, he's much too stylish, and too canny, but you get the impression he disdains the corporate, feels that luxury goods that are produced on a vast scale have no personality. Gianmaria thinks the family style, the small scale, the old-fashioned craft, produce better goods and, in the end, better business. And he thrives on contact with clients.

Once a year Gianmaria travels the world, visiting his shops, his friends, and his clients. "Customers choose me," he says. "I impose my taste, but the designs vary. A customer says, 'Please do something in this spirit.' Sometimes I design in front of them. Sometimes they do it with me. Sometimes they bring me their stones. It is a reciprocal thing. I love women, they are my best inspiration. I like to be in contact with people who give me ideas." He also believes that great design is dynamic. "I'm not the same as I was ten or twenty years ago," he says. "Design and designers evolve."

Gianmaria was born in 1929 in Milan, the fourth of five sons. By 15, he was working as an apprentice to his father, Mario, who founded the business in 1919, just after World War I. Connoisseurs and intellectuals, among them the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, met at Mario's shop near the Milan Cathedral. D'Annunzio was more than a poet. He was a philosopher, a man of letters, an epic figure, famous for his love affairs, one of those European superstars like Byron before him. He ordered hundreds of jewels from Mario Buccellati and would dedicate a box to some woman and send it over to Mario's to be filled. It made the jeweler famous. Mario Buccellati's style came out of the Renaissance by way of Art Deco. He made jewelry and objets, watch fobs and boxes, and even jeweled frames for evening bags. And Gianmaria loved it all.

"When I was thirteen or fourteen, I told my father that I wanted to come into the business, but he said to me, 'You have to finish your studies, but if you want, during holidays, you may come to work.' He had me cleaning and doing other humble tasks. At eighteen, he gave me the responsibility of the shop."

Gianmaria and three brothers inherited the business when their father died in 1965. (His fourth brother, Giorgio, is an archaeologist at UCLA.) The brothers worked together until the mid-1970s, when there were disputes over the direction and expansion of the company. Gianmaria split with older brothers Lorenzo and Federico.

Was it acrimonious? Was there family blood on the floor? The polite reply: Although the brothers are not close, there is no animosity—not these days, anyway. It is one of those complicated dynastic tales: Lorenzo, who still lives in Milan, kept the Mario Buccellati retail stores in Milan and Florence; Federico kept the store in Rome (called Federico Buccellati); Luca, the eldest, kept the New York store and U.S. silver wholesale business. And Gianmaria kept the Buccellati production and laboratories. With Luca he also built his own retail business in New York. When Luca died in 1985, Gianmaria went on working with Luca's son Mario, who inherited his father's business.

Gianmaria bought the U.S. businesses in the early '90s and now has stores in Milan, Sardinia, Paris, New York, and Beverly Hills, as well as franchises in Venice, Capri, Elba, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Osaka. The firm in the United States is known as Buccellati. But because of the other brothers' shops in Europe, Gianmaria's European boutiques are called Gianmaria Buccellati.

Gianmaria's younger son, 43-year-old Andrea Buccellati, knew he wanted to design jewelry from an early age. "I never went to university, because why go when I know what I want and others have to start all over again as soon as they are finished," says Andrea. The Buccellatis were becoming a dynasty.

Andrea, whose home base is Milan, also runs Tessiloro, a small factory near Lake Como where gold chains are made.

"For more than fifteen years I worked alongside my father—of course, we fight all the time that I am learning," Andrea confides early one afternoon. He's decided that I must see his factory up in the hills, and he is driving me there himself. "I can go fast?" he asks. "You are not afraid?"

I nod my head, and he puts his foot on the gas. Off we go.

Andrea has inherited both his father's talent and the family looks: the wavy hair and blue eyes. He is a matinée idol who skis in St. Moritz and fishes in the Bahamas. He adores his Cuban-American wife, and over lunch, as he smokes a cigar, he lights up talking about her and his children. But in the end, it's about the business.

"A third of the world's gold chains are made in Italy," Andrea tells me. "But no one does it the way we do." That's the point of this tiny factory in northern Italy. Here a dozen or so workers make gold chains almost entirely by hand and the jewelry that makes up Buccellati's less expensive line—casual pieces you might wear with your jeans: a pair of basketlike yellow gold earrings with diamonds, a gold necklace called Crepe de Chine. I try it on—it sits softly like a fine silk collar. I want it. Only 20 or so are produced each year.

A few days later, brother Gino, effusive and good-natured, picks me up at the train station in Bologna, not far from where he oversees the family's silver factory.

Gino is the family hippie, the guy with wild hair and a big grin who speaks pure American English, loves baseball, and can name all the players on the 1984 Yankees team. Still, it's Gino, with an MBA, who is the real businessman. He lives outside Bologna with his Japanese wife and their children. "I get a lot of strength from Milan, from my father," he says, as we make our way to the factory in Casalecchio di Reno.

Silver has been made here since 1860. By the time the family bought the factory in 1984, it was already producing half of what was being marketed as Buccellati silver. Gino greets his workers with pleasure. "It really matters to me how their lives are. They make it all happen."

All of the silver is fashioned by hand. This is labor-intensive work—heating, engraving, the endless hammering from the inside out, which produces the embossed Buccellati signature style. There are enormous elaborate pieces, candelabra, bowls; there are witty pieces, like a silver lobster. But it's the plain flatware that I want, particularly a pattern called Mayfair in heavy gauge, which is twice as heavy as any other and made mostly for the Italian market.

Back in Milan, I stop in at Buccellati headquarters. It is 7 p.m. Andrea is looking over designs. Maria Cristina is writing on her laptop, organizing a visit to the Paris shop, and sneaking candy from a stash kept by Isa Rabacchi, Gianmaria's assistant. Rabacchi, who's been with the firm for 19 years, is the major-domo of the Buccellati Republic, keeper of its secrets. She is the woman behind the scenes.

At his desk, Gianmaria, always in a suit, always elegant, is discussing business with a visitor, though every now and then his eyes stray to a piece of paper. He picks up a pencil and starts to work on what will become another piece of silver—the real coin of the realm of the Buccellati Republic.

"I believe more in the future than the past," he says. "And freedom is the best inspiration, in art and social questions. I get my ideas from the air." He pauses, looks up, and smiles. "Every artist grows. In the last two months, for instance, I designed and created some important silver pieces." Rapidly, his hand moves across the pad on his desk. There's a look of sheer joy as he adds, "I start to explode with enthusiasm."

In the United States, Buccellati has stores at 46 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022; 212-308-2900; and 9500 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; 310-276-7022.

Reggie Nadelson profiled Andrew Grima in the September issue.