Micro-mosaics: The Original Souvenir

Words by Beata Sinclair

In the age of the Iphone, with all the wonders of the modern age at our fingertips, it can be easy to take a cursory glance past an antique store jewellery counter and see, well, a bunch of old stuff. While we'll admit, our favourite pieces in store are often the shiniest and signed names like 'Tiffany' and 'Cartier', we sometimes forget some truly amazing pieces of history, pieces like micro-mosaics. Read on and see how these seemingly humble Italian trinkets are actually a marvel of European craftsmanship and ingenuity and might just become your new collectors item.         

Early 18th century Italy is believed to be the birthplace of micro-mosaics, some pinpoint the Vatican as the exact place where micro-mosaic was first created. The Vatican Mosaic Studio opened in 1727 to convert some of the paintings in the city’s basilica to mosaics for preservation. There, artisans began to experiment with making micro-mosaics into small, portable works of art.

This method included melting glass, pulling it into thin threads and then, after it cooled, cutting it into tiny pieces (tesserae) that were then arranged on a copper or gold background to create a scene, portrait or landscape. 

In higher quality pieces of micro-mosaic, each square inch of the piece can contain between 3,000 and 5,000 individual tesserae tiles. Often more complicated pieces were made in individual cells by different craftsmen, as a period of 3 months was often still not enough time to create the entire piece. As you can imagine, incredible skill, care and patience was needed to become a micro-mosaic artisan, lets not forget good eyesight!

The popularity of micro-mosaic reached its peak in the mid to late 1800s and most antique micro-mosaics come from this period. One way of establishing the age of your micro-mosaic piece is to examine the size of the tesserae; the older the piece, the smaller and more intricate the mosaic pieces were. As the Industrial Age dawned and intensive hand labor became much more expensive, the pieces with larger tiles became much more common.

Micro-mosaic jewellery become very fashionable specifically during the Grand Tour period (17th-19th Century). Members of aristocratic families travelled around Europe, taking in the sights and cultures of different countries. Italy was one of the most popular destinations as it had a long, impressive and renowned history in arts and culture, a favourite subject in aristocratic circles. 

As part of their trip, travellers would brush up on their language skills, take up fencing, commission paintings of themselves amongst the ruins of Rome, and naturally, take home a few treasures they found along the way. Chief among these was micro-mosaic jewellery. 

What would you expect to pay for an antique micro-mosaic? The price of a micro-mosaic  can range widely depending on their quality and the number of tesserae used. The more intricate the pieces and smaller the tesserae, the higher the price would be. 

We've compiled a collection of our own micro-mosaics for you to explore below.