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Craftsmen of Valenza Glow With Golden Hue

October 25, 1987|AMY BERMAR | Bermar is a Cambridge, Mass., free-lance writer.

VALENZA, Italy — The golden hue reflected throughout this town is because of its 800 small workshops, in which goldsmiths mold, sculpt, cast and polish the metal.

Artisans buy their gold by the gram in thin, shiny sheets, pressed and cut in neat rectangles and squares or rolled into thin rods.

A dull yellow at the outset, each piece usually is worked on by a small team of craftsmen. One goldsmith cuts the basic segments while another sets stones. A third files the piece smooth before burnishing.

The finished hand-hewn necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings are unrivaled by anything produced by machine. Valenza is renowned for its workmanship, and the objects made here are sold to some of the world's most prestigious jewelers, including Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels and Tiffany.

Cartier Sends Designers

Some companies, such as Cartier, send designers to work with Valenzan artisans, many of whom continue the artistic traditions of their elders.

"My great-grandfather began to sell early in the 20th Century," says Maria Cada, whose family store, Pasetti Flora, is one of a dozen shops showcasing the goldsmiths' work.

Most of Valenza's jewelry shops are crowded and informal and somewhat short on decorative frills. But civility is stressed in Italy's smaller towns, so residents may walk a stranger to a destination, and sales clerks often offer customers an early evening espresso or aperitif from a neighborhood cafe.

On Pasetti Flora's long black counter two scales calibrated to weigh small quantities are set alongside a pair of calculators. All the jewelry, though, is sealed in a large double-doored safe, where it's carefully rolled in scores of soft cotton wrappers.

Large Gold Chains

Cada removed a group of necklaces, noting that her mother sold many of the same styles more than 30 years ago. The large, hollow gold chains seen this season in Rome and Milan also were popular in the 1950s and show the ancient Greek and Roman influences to which Italian design remains so tied.

Like the stores, most gold workshops are small, and, by and large, family-run. Scattered among the alleys and courtyards, some craft only gold, while others specialize in setting jewels into near-finished pieces.

"The difference is in the work," said Mario Diarena, president of the jewelers' association. In Italy's other gold centers, the work is manufactured almost exclusively by machine.

Almost any machine can churn out more miles of gold chain in a single hour than an artisan would attempt to forge in a year. But Valenza's goldsmiths nonetheless use 20 tons of pure gold annually, enough for several million necklaces.

Valenza's dominant industry dates back slightly more than a century, and probably originated with territorial in-fighting. Poised on a hill between two provinces and near the Po River, Valenza became a natural fortress. Tradespeople made the metal products that armies inevitably demanded, and when the military left, the craft remained.

Master's Art

In 1848 the first goldsmith's workshop, or oreficeria , opened. An apprentice refined his master's art and soon established competition.

Now more than a third of Valenza's 24,000 citizens work gold for a living. Italians from other towns come to Valenza to shop because the selection is vast and the prices are less. Stores welcome tourists and often employ English-speaking clerks.

But the workshops are generally closed to the public. Having too many visitors interrupts the workday, particularly in spaces that offer little extra room to begin with. An unspoken but more worrisome concern is the potential for robbery.

Inside an oreficeria specializing in jeweled handwork, Stefano Veritas strung a necklace of smoky amber topaz and onyx beads. Because the topaz pendant was more than two inches long the necklace, when finished, will wholesale for about $15,000.

Veritas, who learned his craft making religious pieces, noted that the wealthy are wearing smaller stones than before. American customers are increasingly wary about showing expensive pieces in public, he said, especially in cities.

But throughout Italy, gold continues to be given as gifts on even the slightest holidays, and most women, and many men, aspire to personal collections.

"In Rome and Sicily, people buy gold for investment," said Patricia Braggione, who designs for her family's store, 18KT. "But in the north they're looking for workmanship. They want the piece nobody else has."

Priced by Weight

In Valenza almost all gold is priced by weight alone, and even intricately hand-worked items sell for $4 to $12 a gram above the daily market price for bullion.

On the other hand, stores elsewhere generally price by the finished piece, and the cost may be 30% higher than in Valenza. The same jewelry in the United States is typically at least twice as expensive.

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