Imagine if Tiffany & Co. were headed up by Noam Chomsky. Or if Michael Moore were the CEO of Asprey. Absurd? Not in Florence.
Gianfranco Pampaloni describes himself as an “old-school Diogenian,” after the Greek philosopher. In conversation it’s sometimes difficult to pin him down to his core business. Which is, put bluntly, selling silver. “The problem with silverware,” Pampaloni says, “is that traditionally you get it after the exciting bit—the courtship, the hot sex. It’s associated with settling down.” Pampaloni challenges this notion: “I like to make objects with sex appeal.” He also likes to court controversy.
On Valentine’s Day in 2011, he procured the heart of an ox from a local butcher, ran it through with a solid silver arrow and hung it up in the window of the company’s elegant Via Porta Rossa flagship store in downtown Florence, above the words, “The heart is just a pump.” All this would be no more than radical chic posturing if it weren’t for the fact that, under Pampaloni, his shop has reinvented itself as one of Italy’s most fascinating small luxury brands. He had never been sure about entering the family business—but like many reluctant heirs, Pampaloni, 57, turned out to be just what the stuck-in-the-past firm needed when he came on board in 1981. “Silverware can be grotesquely ugly but still command a high price,” he says. “What I set out to do is make silver for those who love it for what it is, not for what it costs.”
Entering Pampaloni’s factory and offices in Florence’s southern suburbs, one is greeted by a sort of company museum, a series of antique glass display cases housing prototypes, photographs and curiosities. On one shelf sits a set of handsome silver knives, forks and spoons sent to Pampaloni to melt down by Sicilian nuns who wanted to “make Jesus a gift” by ordering a new silver monstrance for their convent. Mesmerized by the cutlery’s unshowy elegance, Pampaloni used it as the model for one of the company’s most successful flatware lines: Due Sicilie (five-piece sterling-silver set, $990).
But perhaps Pampaloni’s most impressive creative coup is the Bichierografia collection (from $70 for a wineglass). The zoomorphic silver vases, jugs, goblets, candlesticks and pitchers are based on drawings that Mannerist artist Giovanni Maggi made for Cardinal del Monte (the patron of Caravaggio) between 1600 and 1604. Coming across them in the Uffizi Gallery, Pampaloni decided to put the never-produced studies for a silver service into production. His most recent innovation is In Fabbrica, a restaurant located above the factory, where two chefs—one Tuscan, the other Japanese—prepare a set-menu dinner for those who book ahead (and you do need to book). The brand’s magnificent silver pitchers and candelabra grace the rough trattoria tables; on the ceiling, small lightbulbs pick out a hammer and sickle symbol. The price? A very reasonable $40 for women and $46 for men—explaining the discrepancy, Pampaloni says simply, “Men break more chairs.”
Pampaloni has showrooms in Florence (Via Porta Rossa 99R) and Miami (91 NE 40th St.). The factory and In Fabbrica restaurant are at Via del Gelsomino 99; 39-347/514-5468; pampaloni.com.
Three Other Florentine Artisans
Like Gianfranco Pampaloni, these brands—specializing in millinery, silk and footwear—continue the tradition of Florentine craft.
The creative milliner specializes in colorful hats in natural materials, including straw, felt, wool and linen. Gatto’s grasp of shape and cut turns the simplest wide-brimmed straw hat into a style statement. Hats start at $120; Piazza Pitti 5; antoniogatto.com.
Antico Setificio Fiorentino
After years of decline, the historic silk-making concern gained a new lease on life when it became part of the Stefano Ricci group in 2010. It’s been at the same address since 1786, specializing in silk and silk-linen damask, brocade and Ermisino taffeta, all woven on ancient handlooms. Fabrics start at $435 a yard; Via L. Bartolini 4; anticosetificiofiorentino.com.
The emperor of Florentine bespoke men’s footwear, Bemer passed away prematurely in July 2012, but his legacy continues with Tommaso Melani, head of the city’s Scuola del Cuoio leather school, who acquired the business and relocated it to a deconsecrated church in June 2013. Shoes start at $490; bespoke designs, at $1,155; Via San Niccolò 2R; stefanobemer.com.