If you saw it at a glance, you might think it was a painting. In fact, it was the product of many hours of painstaking stone cutting and laying. This art form is called pietra dura, and it is one of the most beautiful types of mosaics found in jewelry making.
Pietra dura translates to "hard stone" in Italian, but also refers to the artistic practice of inlaying stone into a hard backing to create pictures. While mosaics are usually immediately identifiable as separate pieces within a design, pietra dura usually requires a closer look. The stone inlay work is so finely crafted, that pietra dura often looks like a painting. This quality in craftsmanship usually makes pietra dura more valuable than other mosaic work.
The "hard stone" that is used in pietra dura includes agate, jasper, lapis, jade, malachite, onyx, quartzes, and alabaster. Typically the backing will be made of black marble or onyx. To make pietra dura, the artisan first traces out their design on the backing panel, then cuts each stone to fit its designated spot. Choosing the stone and where to carve is a true art form, because color variations, light and dark areas, and transparency can all be used to influence the final look of the piece, much in the way a painter chooses and mixes paint colors. After the stones are chosen and cut and the backing has been carved out, the stones are inlaid. The goal is typically to create a seamless design, although veining can be used to great effect to contribute to the final image.
Antique pietra dura earrings
Although this practice has ancient origins, it was perfected during the Italian renaissance in Florence and throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. As implied by the name, pietra dura is an art form strongly associated with Italy, however some historians believe that it was practiced much earlier in India. The most famous example of pietra dura (also known as parchin kari) in India is the Taj Mahal, which is decorated with precious stones inlaid into white marble.
Pietra dura, micromosaic, and mosaic are all similar Italian art forms, and are often confused with one another. Like pietra dura, micromosaics have very fine detail that can be hard to make out us separate pieces. However, the process for making micromosaics is quite different. Rather than cutting each piece to fit together like a puzzle, the pieces (also known as tesserae) are more or less the same size and shape (usually oblong), and are arranged according to their color to "paint" the image. These pieces are usually glass pulled into tiny rods, cut into cubes, and arranged on to a mastic or cement backing. Once the image has been tiled together, colored wax is used to fill in any gaps and the micromosaic is polished to perfection. Unlike the varying size shapes that make up a pietra dura piece, micromosaics are always made up of very tiny, similarly shaped pieces.
A close up of very fine detail in this Victorian micromosaic pendant.
Mosaics on the other hand, when referred to in the context of jewelry, are typically less refined. Even though they are similar in process to micromosaics, the individual pieces are bigger and the layout tends to be less tight. Mosaic jewelry is usually "costume", or rather made from glass and non-precious metals. Another way to distinguish mosaics from micromosaics is the subject matter: mosaic jewelry often depicts flowers, animals, or fruit, while micromosaic jewelry traditionally depicted Italian landmarks or biblical figures. Mosaic jewelry can vary widely in quality, but is nevertheless collectable.
This style of glass floral mosaic is very common.
Although most people associate mosaic jewelry with Italy, the indigenous Zuni and Navajo tribes have made and continue to make important contributions to the mosaic art form. Zuni artisans in particular are renowned for their stone inlay work, using turquoise, shell, malachite, lapis, and other stones found locally to them. While skillful mosaic jewelry making has fallen out of favor in Italy, Navajo and Zuni artisans continue to elevate the techniques of stone inlay, intarsia, and mosaic design. Like pietra dura, these stonework methods require enormous skill and experience. Wearing this jewelry is like wearing a work of art!
A beautiful example of Zuni intarsia with malachite, opal, and lapis.