BOOK CLUB: Discovering Nardi’s Venetian treasures

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Nicholas Foulkes recalls his first piece from the fine jeweller.

Nestled in a corner of St. Marks Square is Nardi, a family business steeped in history, decadent jewels and glittering gemstones. In this extract from the sumptuous new book celebrating the brand, known simply as Nardi, author Nicholas Foulkes describes the moment he discovered its unique Venetian aesthetic for the first time.

Sergio Nardi was on the way from his family’s palazzo to the world-famous jewellery shop that bore his family name. He had made the daily journey the length of St Marks Square for as long as he could remember.

He had first come in the mid-1930s when, as a child, he was taken to the shop to see his father after school and would play on the smooth flagstones of St Mark’s with a paper ball made for him by one of the shop’s staff, as his father welcomed the shop’s celebrated customers. In time he would too welcome those famous customers, film stars, aristocrats, rock stars and crowned heads, while his own son would play on the cool stones of St Mark’s.

Today Sergio Nardi is an old man. Even though he is in his eighties he recalls that morning a generation earlier. “I remember well, it was the first fine morning for some days,” he says. “There had been rain for some days before but that morning was beautiful and I decided to walk across the Piazza. About halfway across for no particular reason I turned around and the sunlight seemed to sparkle as it hit the quadriga.

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I must have seen that famous sight many thousands of times before, but on that occasion it was like I was a visitor to Venice seeing it for the first time and as it was early in the morning and early in the season the Piazza was almost empty, it was magical. At the same time I remembered two pieces of American turquoise that I had just bought. In themselves they were nothing out of the ordinary; nice, but not valuable and only roughly faceted, but as soon as I had opened the shop I got these two stones out of their folded paper envelope and looked at them, then I started sketching around them, the outlines of a pair of horse’s heads in which these two, rough cabochon rutilated stones formed the cheeks and eyes.”

Nardi then walked round to his workshops on the nearby Calle and climbing the stairs to the atelier he gave the stones, his drawings and his instructions to one of the company’s ablest jewellers, Nello. After a couple of weeks Nardi’s sketches found themselves expressed in three dimensions in yellow gold and turquoise as a pair of richly textured cufflinks, almost abstract and yet indisputably horse’s heads. “They were perfect” says Nardi, “The look was unpolished but not rough, so there was a feel of the variegated, patinated surface of the quadriga about them in the way that they caught the light in some places and absorbed it in others. It reminded me of that morning view. I was delighted with them.”

Alas their creator’s delight was not shared by his customers. The 1970s became the 1980s which progressed into the 1990s, the new millennium arrived and still Nello’s quadriga-inspired cufflinks remained unsold. Nello himself had long retired and Sergio Nardi, now entering his seventies, had handed over the day to day running of the shop to his son Alberto. Tastes had changed, moved on, leaving these cufflinks behind, under a velvet cloth, in a tray under the counter.

And then during the Film Festival of 2009 a customer in a violet linen suit came into the shop. He had, he said, some Nardi pieces, which he had bought at auction and wondered whether, in addition to the charming miniature carnival mask cufflinks in gold and precious stones in the window there were any other links that he could look at. With some apologies and explanations that the stock in the window represented the current stock, the customer was about to leave the shop when Alberto Nardi walked in with his son Marco. The customer asked to be introduced and the two men talked and the visitor was about to leave the shop, when, almost as an afterthought, one of the sales assistants remembered the tray of cufflinks under the counter.

The whoops and shrieks of delight from the customer could be heard across the Piazza. The calm dignity of the historic shop with its silver velvet walls, its antique vitrines and old master paintings was fractured as this excitable customer slipped the links into the cuffs of his Charvet shirt 30 years after they had been made; the cufflinks inspired by the quadriga, conceived by Sergio Nardi and realised by Nello had found a buyer.

The unusual manner in which these 1970s cufflinks were sold is a fact for which I can vouch, as I was the customer in the violet linen suit and in those marvellously expressive cufflinks I saw the traces of imaginative genius and aesthetic daring: extreme even by the standards of the decade in which they had been crafted they became and indeed still are amongst my most treasured possessions. Nothing like as conventionally valuable as the rest of Nardi’s production, they were nevertheless for me a perfect expression of the work of this, Venice’s pre-eminent jeweller and its most emblematic of luxury houses.

Even though these cufflinks are unique and not a little eccentric they are nevertheless a textbook example of the house style, the imaginative interpretation of a familiar aspect of Venice in precious metals and precious and semi-precious stones, which through the transfigurative alchemy of taste, imagination and painstaking craftsmanship are elevated beyond the status of mere precious adornment or ornamental souvenir; to become instead a cultural object suffused with the quintessence of a city that ranks preeminent amongst mankind’s most impressive, historically rich and hauntingly beautiful creations. There is a Venetian word for this creative process — Nardi.

This Book Club was taken from the May issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.
 

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