- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2000

The exhibit of jewelry, chalices, candlesticks, boxes, and ceremonial cups by Milan's Buccellati family presents an amazing world of glittering gems, luminous gold and silver, and unusual stones such as agate, lapis lazuli and jasper.

Titled "Buccellati: Art in Gold, Silver and Gems," the show from the renowned Italian jewelry and design firm opens at the National Museum of Natural History tomorrow. Based in Italy, Buccellati has shops in Asia, Europe, and the United States.

Case after case holds jeweled necklaces, bracelets and earrings, as well as gemmed and gilded chalices and cups. Each of the 75 pieces is unique. What's impressive is the seemingly endless inventiveness of these artist/craftsmen.

Consider the different kinds of artistry in the exhibit's first objects, a "Medicean-Style Jewel Box" designed by son Gianmaria Buccellati in 1970 and a "Tiara" created by father and firm founder Mario Buccellati in 1929.

The father established what is now the House of Buccellati in 1919 near the famous La Scala opera house. Here he created the "Buccellati Style" known for its elegant design, exceptional craftsmanship, and luxury materials.

The "Tiara" of diamonds, gold, and silver shows the typical Buccellati elegance and balance of design. Mario Buccellati (1891-1965), who created the headpiece, revived the use of specialized jewelers' tools for precise and exquisite patterns in gold and silver.

The Italian royal family had commissioned him to create the coronet for the marriage of one of its princesses during the 1920s. It was returned to Mr. Buccellati after World War II and has remained in the family.

The large Medicean box of steel, gold, and 266 diamonds salutes the extraordinary craftsmanship of objects made for the legendary Medici family during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The Medicean collection in Florence's Pitti Palace inspired the design of this foliate decorated 10-sided jewel box. Gray steel plates — modern material — support the more traditional gold and diamonds.

Commemorative cups form a large part of the Buccellati production. The family looks back to drinking vessels that symbolized celebration and friendship for thousands of years. Richly ornamented cups of medieval and Renaissance times, models for vessels such as the "Smithsonian Cup," were used at the royal courts. Poets and writers tell of promises and love potions drunk from jeweled goblets. The wealthy prized them for their private collections.

The Buccellatis intend to call up these traditions with the "Smithsonian Cup," made especially for the beginning of the third millennium and this exhibit. The family gave the cup to the Smithsonian Institution, where it will be displayed in the National Gem Collection of the National Museum of Natural History.

Gianmaria Buccellati (b. 1929) designed the harmoniously proportioned, pedestalled cup — really a small sculpture — with pieces of Brazilian gray-streaked agate from Brazil. Agate gives itself to "sculpting" with light and this small sculpture uses the refractions and reflections of light to the fullest.

The "Cup of Euphoric Bliss" (1978), shaped into the body of a swan, is even more of a sculpture. According to the exhibit's brochure, the swan, often considered the most beautiful and romantic of all birds, holds a special meaning in Italy. It symbolizes peace, dreams and oblivion.

It's also a tour de force of craftsmanship with unusual materials. Mr. Buccellati carved the swan from a piece of "antique moss" jasper, a fine-grained quartz, and decorated the feathers, body, neck and head with shimmering gold. Fortunately, the curators placed the piece low enough so visitors can see the variegated red-green colors of the jasper.

The designer also looked to Greek mythology for inspiration with his "Trophy of the Muses" (1981). The nine muses were patron goddesses of the arts for the Greeks; their names are finely written along the bowl's interior rim. He carved it from an exceptional piece of pure jade and encrusted it with 2,000 sapphire cabochons.

He emphasizes that there's constant rethinking in drawing and creating his jewelry. He says, "Designing jewelry is like painting in one dimension, whereas designing in silver allows me to explore my talent as a 'sculptor.'"

He used his sculptural talents in the "Phoenix Brooch" (1983). He says the design was inspired by the ancient legend of the phoenix. When the phoenix — symbolic of death, resurrection and immortality — dies, it burns itself in a funeral pyre but rises from the ashes as a new phoenix. The jeweler formed the bird's body from an extremely rare 136.10-carat pearl, which he describes as a concretion of 17 pearl nuclei. He then mounted the pearl in white and yellow gold. He set 26 emeralds for the tuft, used one faceted ruby for the eye and inserted 881 natural colored diamonds for the plumage of wings and tails. Mr. Buccellati employed one light gray baroque pearl that symbolize the ashes.

Nothing quite measures up to this extraordinary piece but the magnificence of his necklaces and bracelets can't be denied. Mario Buccellati's "Necklace with Rubies and Beryl" (1923) holds smaller rubies in the piece going around the neck as well as a larger one that holds the beryl, a kind of aquamarine.

Gianmaria Buccelati designed the "Anemone Necklace" (1989) with 53 uncut large diamonds in what he calls their "natural crystal" forms. Their varying shapes, colors and sizes do, indeed, call up the flowers.

He concentrates on creating unique settings for unusual stones. He chooses unusual pearls, precious and semi-precious gemstones, and minerals for flexible jewelry that "moves" with the wearer.

One is his "Diamond Necklace and Earrings" (1987) of briolette-cut diamonds. They were originally from an Indian necklace and are now set in a Renaissance-inspired design. A briolette is a drop-shaped gem faceted into triangular and rectangular shapes.

The older Buccellati invented the "tulle-work" technique that mimics lace. The artisan pierced the bracelet's two-layered band of gold and silver with a miniature drill, then carefully sawed out the metal for elaborate geometric designs.

The curators wisely display minerals from the Smithsonian's Gem and Mineral Collection that represent those used by the Buccellatis. We learn that quartz can come from Arkansas, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, malachite from the Democratic Republic of Congo, topaz from Brazil, diamonds from South Africa, and jadeite from Burma. Large photomurals of the minerals further illustrate their composition and place of origin.

Three generations of Buccellatis have worked, or are working, in the House of Buccellati. Let's hope they continue for many generations more.

WHAT: "Buccellati: Art in Gold, Silver and Gems"WHERE: Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Feb. 25TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/357-2700

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