The birth of the Grand Tour is often attributed to a 1670 text by Richard Lassels called The Voyage of Italy. It spawned copycat travel guides and inspired generations of well-heeled Englishmen and Northern Europeans to travel across the continent, making stops at classical sites in such cities as Florence, Venice, and Rome. The Grand Tour soon became an essential part of an elite cultural education. And after 18 months of travel, and the return to the comforts of home, memories were required to mark the journey. Cameos, intaglios, and micro-mosaics, often depicting cultural sights and figures, began to appear on fashionable lapels and wrists and fingers. These mementos are now called Grand Tour jewelry, and they are a connoisseur’s collectible, devoid of glittering stones or conspicuous flash but rather symbols of a cultivated aesthetic, the kind of piece that functions as a secret signal, a jewelry-people version of #IYKYK . They are rare treasures sometimes spotted in places like Pennisi in Milan, Dary’s in Paris, Wartski in London, and Fred Leighton in New York. And, occasionally, backstage at Gucci.
Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s celebrated creative director, has at least one. It is part of a personal jewelry collection, evident on his person and in his Instagram feed, that is as eclectic and reference-rich as the universe he has constellated around the 100-year-old Italian house. (Remember that Never Marry a Mitford sweater? The ancient Greek lettering embroidered on a jacket? Tippi Hedren?) Michele calls his passion a kind of “fever.” “Those kinds of jewels,” he tells me when I confess my envy of the Grand Tour bracelet and admit to having followed it, and him, backstage to get a closer look, “are for people who are obsessed. It’s a very specific obsession, but I’m laughing because really it’s a disease. I’m a collector of a lot of things, but jewels, they are dangerous, because they are small and you can get so many. With paintings, there is a point when you stop, because you run out of storage. Jewels have the same power, but you have enough space to put them almost everywhere. ”
We are not actually here to talk about Michele’s personal collection — or the Grand Tour, for that matter. The subject at hand is his second High Jewelry collection for Gucci, a presentation in four parts of approximately 130 pieces, most of them one-of-a-kind, titled Hortus Deliciarum (“Garden of Delights” in Latin). But the past clearly speaks to Michele, and his knowledge of jewelry lore is threaded through every Edwardian-inspired garland, Georgianesque rivière, and Renaissance painting – style collar in the boldly imagined collection. And yet, just when the influence of history might appear to be too heavy, a piece takes a turn toward Gucci. One necklace, in wildly colored imperial topaz, rubellites, peridots, citrines, and mandarin garnets, cascades into the Edwardian era’s signature bow, a motif that the period (named after Queen Victoria’s son, who had a penchant for fanciful excess) borrowed from the court of Versailles. The sweetness of the bow is disrupted by a series of shooting diamond stars, so while the bow may recall the French crown jewels or Empress Eugénie’s brooch (now on view at the Louvre), and the exploding stars could certainly be a nod to the 27 diamonds the Austrian empress Sisi famously wore in her hair, the mashup feels singularly at home at Michele’s Gucci — and perhaps on his modern muses, like the musician Florence Welch and the actresses Hari Nef and Jodie Turner-Smith.
“When I started designing the High Jewelry, I was thinking about all the beautiful pieces from the Georgian and Edwardian eras. Edwardian jewels were the beginning of the contemporary way to make a jewel — how to cut the stones in the right way. So I had in my mind all the years of this amazing work, and I started getting back to these old jewels, first of all because I collect so many pieces of that era, but also because they still have something unbelievable. I try to, in a way, replicate something about them: the round stones, the technique, the right shape. I also tried to use a lot of different colors of stones, which maybe they would not have done, but in the Renaissance there was a very huge sensibility in colors, and now we are a little bit more about just one color. I wanted to mix and match all these eras. Sometimes, when you see a necklace that is completely finished, and you have it in front of you, you would love to take a bow. ” There is also, throughout our conversation, and the collection, a clear and present reverence for stones — for their beauty, yes, but also for the wonder of their natural existence. The necklace with the bow is centered on an 8-carat opal. The collection also includes violet and plum spinels, Paraíba tourmalines, violet tanzanite, sunflower-yellow beryl. There are diamonds, of course, and yes, emeralds too.
Each, in Michele’s mind, has something to say. “I try to have the stones in conversation,” he says. “I usually put inside things of nature, color, and the provenance of the stone, the light that [reflects] when you look at the stone. There is always a thought about the power and belong the beauty of the stone connected with the earth, because the stones to the earth. When people think about stones, they don’t know that they are the results of millions and millions of years of work, just by chance. It’s mysterious. Sometimes I’m obsessed with mixing the stones — like sapphires — with other colors. I don’t always put the same color in the same piece. I like different shapes and different shades.
“Today I was shooting a few pictures, and I was looking at the first pieces that came out from the collection. People think they are so perfect that they look fake. It’s amazing that we say the word fake—It’s like you’re saying that they need the manipulation of human beings to be perfect. The reality is that nature is much more perfect than the way we can work on it. If I wanted to replicate a color as deep as spinel, if I wanted to repeat a color like this on fabric or a piece of wood, I couldn’t. ”
How does someone who feels so deeply about the power of jewels react when he sees someone wearing one of his own? “I will tell you something, because you have the same fever that I have. Today I was looking at the first few pieces that came out, and I saw the tanzanite necklace, and I was looking at it like it was a baby. I was like, ‘You look so amazing. I hope that you will have a mom and dad that will take care of you. ‘ I know every single stone and shape. Every single piece — it’s like they belong to me, like I’m gifting you something that is from me. I want them to see how sincere my love is. They are not buying a piece from Gucci and my design, they are buying something from my heart. I always want to know who they are. ”
Well, I know one: an adventurously chic friend on the West Coast who feels as if her new Gucci High Jewelry animal bracelet is a work of art. It will be very, very well taken care of.
Hair and makeup by Sergio Corvacho. Nails by Magali Buisson. Tailoring by Alice Chastel-Mazin. Production services by Louis2.
This story appears in the September 2021 issue of Town & Country.