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Ancient Style, Modern Appeal: Our New Neoclassical Jewelry

Our new jewelry from New York City–based goldsmith Donna Distefano reimagines a set of neoclassical adornments from Italy

The inspiration for our Roman Cameo Jewelry, Roman Acorn Jewelry, and Roman Finial Jewelry is a beautiful neoclassical parure, or matched jewelry set, in The Met collection. Created in Italy in the mid-19th century, it comprises a splendid gold tiara, necklace, and brooch, pictured below. This extravagant parure is currently on view in the dazzling exhibition “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” at The Met Fifth Avenue.

Parure: tiara, necklace, and brooch. Cameos carved by Luigi Saulini (Italian, 1819–1883). Diadem designed by John Gibson (British, 1790–1866). Italian, Rome. Onyx and gold, tortoiseshell, mid-19th century. The Milton Weil Collection, 1940 40.20.55a–c

Cameo-laden parures with tiaras were popularized by Napoleon’s sisters and the ladies of his court, a taste that survived for at least a half century. Neoclassical parures linked the aristocratic women with ancient Greece and Rome and emphasized their imperial status. An opulent parure such as this ornate example at The Met could add an aura of timeless royalty to its wearer.

All three pieces are decorated with cameos by Luigi Saulini, who learned hardstone and shell carving from his adopted father, and continued in the family trade from a successful shop in the Via del Babuino in Rome. Saulini’s large central cameo in the tiara (shown at top) shows Nausicaa from Homer’s Odyssey; in this detailed scene, the princess’s companions lavish attention on her—fixing her hair, bringing her jewelry, and reflecting her beauty in a mirror. All but one of the other cameos in the parure depict ancient marble statues found in Rome: the Belvedere Apollo, the Discobolus, Cupid and Psyche, and Eros stringing his bow.

The Met is fortunate to own other extraordinary cameos by Saulini, such as these two, below.

Left: Cupid with a Dog. Luigi Saulini (Italian, 1819–1883). Italian, Rome. Shell, gold, 1860–70. Bequest of Maria Morgan, 1892 93.6.2 Right: Bust of a bearded man in a cap. Luigi Saulini (Italian, 1819–1883). Italian, Rome. Onyx, gold mount, mid-19th century. Gift of Assunta Sommella Peluso, Ada Peluso, and Romano I. Peluso, in memory of Ignazio Peluso, 2004 2004.519

A document that came with the parure to the Museum in 1929 claimed the gold mounts were designed by John Gibson (1790–1866), a British sculptor residing in Rome, and executed by Castellani, the famous Roman goldsmithing firm. Throughout the 19th century, three generations of the Castellani family―Fortunato Pio, his sons Alessandro and Augusto, and his grandson Alfredo―manufactured fine gold jewelry for an important and wealthy clientele. The firm’s most renowned designs were inspired by exquisite Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities excavated in Italy, which they called “archaeological” jewelry.

Necklace with cameo of Veronica’s Veil. Firm of Castellani. Italian, Rome. Gold, sapphires, ca. 1870. Gift of Judith H. Siegel, 2014 2014.713.1

Castellani’s focus on historical styles included actual involvement in the antiquities trade: the company sponsored excavations, dealt in exhumed objects, restored artifacts, and proudly displayed ancient treasures in their grand jewelry store on Via del Corso. Though it isn’t certain that the parure’s gold mounts were made by Castellani, Saulini’s carving studio was indeed near Gibson’s, and many artists turned to Castellani for mounts in the best “archaeological” style.

Right: Roman Acorn and Leaf Bracelet in sterling silver Center: Roman Cameo Drop Earrings in sterling silver with resin and cultured freshwater pearls Left: Roman Finial Pendant Necklace in sterling silver

Our new collection in sterling silver was made with the finest materials in the New York City atelier of goldsmith Donna Distefano, whose luxurious designs are inspired by her love of medieval art and literature, Renaissance paintings, and ancient techniques. Each eternally stylish item showcases decorative details suggested by this fascinating neoclassical parure. Shop our new earrings, necklaces, and more here.

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