MERCHANT OF VENICE JEWELLER ALBERTO NARDI ON THE DOLCE VITA DAYS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF HERITAGE
By Contributing Editor Juliet Herd
Whenever gemologist Alberto Nardi is asked if his exquisite pieces are made in Italy, he takes great pleasure in replying that not only are they crafted in the country of his birth, but “much more than that, they are made in Venice”, where goldsmith production dates back to the 11th century.
Founded in 1926, Nardi is one of Venice’s most celebrated independent jewellery brands, occupying five arches of the same corner of historic St Mark’s Square where Giulio Nardi, Alberto’s grandfather, first opened his store. During the Dolce Vita years of the 1960s, Nardi became a mecca for the international jet set, attracting such A-list clients as Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe. More recently, the likes of Elton John, Dita Von Teese and Domenico Dolce have found themselves bewitched by the brand’s distinctive Venetian aesthetic.
It was Giulio’s love for Venetian exoticism that led him to reinterpret one of the most emblematic of Venetian jewels, the ‘Moretto’, made famous by Shakespeare’s Moor of Venice, Othello. These brooches, with their elaborate jewelled turbans and costumes in gold, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, soon adorned the lapels of European and Hollywood royalty, including Paola, Queen of Belgium, Elizabeth Taylor and Ingrid Bergman, and propelled the jeweller to international fame. Today, Nardi jewellery is still made in the workshop adjacent to the boutique under the artistic direction of Alberto, whose designs continue to be inspired by the spirit of Venice – the architecture, motifs, mosaics, art and culture. And like the city’s ancient merchants before him, he travels the globe, sourcing jewels and visiting clients.
Here, shortly after reopening his store in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, he explains why his family’s timeless fine jewellery is as relevant and sought after as ever.
How does it feel to be finally open again for business?
“I must say, I was just like a child on his first day at school. I was so happy and excited to see my work place again; it was deeply liberating.”
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during lockdown?
“It is self-evident that the day-to-day job and most of the ongoing projects were severely hit by what happened, still, as I often say, creativity cannot be put in quarantine. I kept planning our future, both from a creative stand point and the communication side. Having a friendship with many of our customers, I could share with them our concerns, hopes and strategies.”
Can you describe Venice without tourists and the atmosphere there now that the city is up and running again?
“If I compare what Venice was like last summer to what it is today, it seems from a different geological era. I was lucky enough to stroll alone in Piazza San Marco on a sunny spring morning [during lockdown]. The atmosphere was unreal but beauty was everywhere, almost as if, without people, the historical buildings had expanded dramatically. Having said that, I believe that now is the right time to visit Venice for conscious tourists, who love beauty. Never in the history of this city has there been the privilege to walk through it in such perfect harmony with the surroundings.”
Elizabeth Taylor was one of Nardi’s most famous clients. Do you have any stories you can share?
“The tradition of creating custom-made objects for our customers, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly, has always been a distinctive feature of our shop. The American writer and producer Dominick Dunne once described how he visited Nardi’s while in Cortina shooting [the 1973 film, starring Elizabeth Taylor] Ash Wednesday to buy a gift for Ms Taylor who, in those years, was at her career peak. The gift was a ring set with ‘Angel Skin’ coral and diamonds, which the actress liked a lot. At the film premiere, noting she was not wearing it, Mr Dunne asked her about it. She said she lost it in a taxi in Rome. He said he never believed it since he never saw Ms Taylor taking a taxi unless it was a limousine. I was excited when I found both the ring and the earrings as a set in a catalogue of jewels auctioned by Christie’s after her death; additional confirmation they were not lost. There was also a Moretto brooch that was especially designed by my grandfather for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.”
Moretti brooches are part of the cultural and artistic history of Venice. What do they mean to you?
“The Moretti have characterised us since the beginning but, of course, our production includes many more collections and pieces. What is the reason for their success? They are indisputably beautiful and full of charm but, also, they are absolutely different from everything you see nowadays. Their timelessness makes them perfect for people who do not follow the ‘fashion of the day’. They need customers with a strong personality.”
You made the brooch depicting a Moorish Venetian prince worn by Princess Michael of Kent that caused a stir a few years ago. How do you respond to the criticism?
“I am happy to confirm once more that the Venetian Moretto testifies to the multiculturalism of Venice, open to the world as a broad-minded city. The ‘Venetian exoticism’ is present all over the city and reaches its sublimation with the Moretto, which represents a Moor prince, as a matter of fact. Venice represents the gateway to the East for Europe. After Marco Polo’s exploits and ever since the first centuries of the Republic’s history, artists have reproduced models, works and mosaics characterised by an exotic style that remains unique and inimitable.”
What does the theme of Venetian exoticism mean to you today?
“I believe that Venetian exoticism – the dream of faraway places and the merging of different cultures – is a theme that is perpetually fascinating. The profiles of its buildings and the tiles of its mosaics are still sources of inspiration and reflection for me.”
Who is the Nardi client?
“Our customer base is global and cosmopolitan. Our customers do not settle for standardised luxury; they search for originality, diversity and something that is neither ordinary nor predictable.”
How important is your personal relationship with clients?
“The direct relationship with my customers is an essential part of my work, in addition to being a pleasure. Trying to fulfil their wishes, listening to them and doing all I can to transform their purchase into an important moment, well, that’s my job. With a hint of irony, I could say that their task is much easier: just to purchase a Nardi jewel.”
Apart from Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly, which other celebrities have been fans over the years?
“For privacy reasons, I prefer not to say too much about present customers, but talking about the past, we’ve had many relevant figures enter our doors: Queen Paola of Belgium, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Rubinstein, Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Hutton, Joe di Maggio, Elton John, Dita Von Teese, Valentino Garavani, Gianni Versace and Domenico Dolce. With pleasure and even pride, I admit that sometimes I find myself going through the pages of our guest books and stopping at some signatures which still move me.”
Three generations of the Nardi family have been custodians of the St Mark’s Square boutique – what does that history represent to you?
“The word ‘tradition’ comes from the Latin verb
‘trahere’, which indicates the act of bringing something into the future. [Gustav] Mahler used to say, ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire’. Well, for me our tradition does not mean to focus on the past, but to try to bring this past into the future. Ever since I was a kid and used to visit my grandfather in the shop after school, I dreamt of my future in the ‘Gioielleria Nardi’. It was not always easy but, in the long run, I am proud of the path I’ve taken. My brother Saverio has always been next to me as a business partner.”
What are the most important lessons you learnt from your grandfather Giulio and father Sergio?
“My grandfather was a man of incredible charisma and was always accompanied by success. From the time when he was a young soldier and first discovered Venice, where he met the woman who was to become his wife, he always faced life with pride and intelligence. My father was a more complicated man. Over time I was able to discover qualities both of his personality and working skills and abilities which, as a rebel teenager, I was not able to focus on. Both my father and grandfather had a remarkable artistic sensibility and taught me the love for this work and absolute respect for our customers.”
Nardi is synonymous with glamour. Is that quality more important than ever today?
“I believe there is a return of interest towards companies with a history which is not artificially fabricated and a type of luxury which reflects true craftsmanship. To have a piece of jewellery or a pair of cufflinks tailor-made for me is real glamour.”
How difficult is it to maintain your independence as a brand?
“Being a jeweller in a city such as Venice means being squeezed between two big commercial types of business: on the one side we have the cheap souvenir shops aimed at mass tourism and, on the other, we have the international brands which, here as elsewhere, occupy the most exclusive streets. To maintain a position in this context is very complex and not easy but, once again, I believe it will be our history that gives us a future. Also, I believe that, outside Venice, there is a niche for brands which distinguish themselves through their originality and coherence.”
Can you tell us about your ethical and sustainable practices?
“The foundation of the Goldsmith Association in Venice dates back to the 11th century and I can say with pride that my ethical commitment is to keep this precious and ancient tradition alive in the city with my workshop and local production. When I’m asked if our jewels are made in Italy, I answer with a twinkle in my eye that not only are they made in Italy, but much more than that, they are made in Venice.”
How did your pret-a-porter Mia Nardi collection come about?
“I was fascinated by the idea of making jewels which were beautiful and joyful but also accessible. That’s how Mia Nardi was born. For me it is not a collection for young people but for women who are independent and, more and more, want to gratify themselves with the purchase of a jewel. The main theme is flowers: earrings and rings as primroses, water lilies, tulips, roses…small caskets which create an ideal secret garden.”
Like the ancient merchants of Venice, you still travel the globe sourcing precious stones and visiting clients. Can you tell us about those trips?
“The trips have a dual aim: the sourcing of the precious stones directly from the country of origin and meeting customers. I’ve always been fascinated by stories of the old Venetian merchants – just like Marco Polo – who used to travel the Silk Road to purchase the most beautiful precious stones. To carry on that tradition seems to me no small heritage.”
How far and wide do you travel?
“I have been to Colombia to purchase emeralds; Sri Lanka and Myanmar for sapphires and rubies and, of course, Belgium for diamonds. For a long time, I regularly visited the United States to meet customers. Wherever I go, I try and bring with me the essence that made Venice unique. In a way, I like to imagine myself as an ambassador of the Venice of beauty, of which I hope to be a worthy keeper.”