MILAN (Reuters) - In the heart of bustling fashion capital Milan, time stands still in Italian jeweler Buccellati’s workshop where father and son work side by side carving, engraving and polishing gems.
There are no state-of-the-art machines around, just the workers using traditional handcrafting techniques, some dating from the Renaissance period.
An artisan cuts out gold leaf shapes using a simple handsaw, while another pierces patterns into fine gold sheets by hand. One slip of the saw, and the work must be started again.
“At a time when men are going to the moon, you can still make jewellery with techniques that date back from the Renaissance,” 79-year-old designer and company head Gianmaria Buccellati said. “A jewel is not just metal and stone, it is also about all the work that has been put in it.”
Many Italian jewelers bet on innovative technologies to beat fierce competition from India, China and Turkey. But Buccellati, which traces its roots back to 1758 when an ancestor set up his atelier, prides itself on traditional techniques to make jewels with gold lace, embellished with detail.
Brooches of fruit or flowers boast precious stones while a cascade of diamonds adorns other pieces. With such detail, a signature ‘Tulle’ ring can take four to six months to make, while a bracelet or a necklace up to two or three years.
Buccellati jewellery and silverware are considered a must-have in Milanese high society and have been snapped up by models, royal families and the Vatican.
The company tied in second place for most prestigious jewellery brand after Harry Winston in a recent survey by the Luxury Institute in the United States.
“There is culture, research behind each jewel ... People who in a certain way have everything want to get somewhere not everybody is ... in terms of state of mind,” said Maria Christina Buccellati, in charge of public relations, declining to name famous clients.
“We don’t follow the trends or the markets. This is our production, this is our style.”
A sector analyst, who did not want to be named, said at a recent Milan jewellery fair the family-controlled company, which has its own internal school, should refresh its designs and offer something more modern to wow young and sophisticated consumers.
Still a world leader in design, Italian jewelers have lost ground to India, China and Turkey which have lower labor costs and have worked to improve quality.
The sector, which has 5.4 percent of the global market, has also seen sales fall on recession fears and soaring gold prices. In 2007, Italy saw volumes of jewellery sold abroad fall 2.5 percent, but sales value rose because of the gold price.
Sector analysts say manufacturers of mass-market jewellery get hit hardest as their clients are price-conscious.
But high-end jewelers at the recent upmarket fair in Milan said making unique, expensive jewellery that customers would not be able to resist was a key to robust sales in turbulent times.
A Buccellati Eternelle ring costs 9,000-15,000 euros ($13,830 - $23,040), but silverware is cheaper. The firm’s most expensive item — a gold and diamond necklace at its London store — costs 1.6 million pounds ($3.22 million).
The company, which makes about 4,000-6,000 jewellery items a year of which 90 percent are unique, saw sales rise last year, Maria Christina said, declining to give specific figures. Sales in the United States rose 20 percent.
That doesn’t mean it expects to remain immune. Fears of a slowdown in high-end spending have already hit European luxury goods shares.
“Next year with all the problems on the stock exchange, we will surely have some problems,” Maria Christina said. “But I’m quite confident we are not going to feel it as much.”
Buccellati says it is different from another jeweler of the same name, run by other family members. Gianmaria split from his brothers’ activities after the death of their father Mario, who opened his first shop in Milan in 1919.
Maria Christina said export-orientated Buccellati, which has 14 stores worldwide and is looking at further openings, had not felt a pinch in Italy despite rising gold prices.
“We don’t base the value of the jewels on the raw material. For us, it’s the workmanship,” she said, adding Buccellati did not raise prices last year.
“There is not much gold in the pieces, it’s more the value of the workmanship, the culture, the research ... Of course, if we have some stones that cost more, it will increase a little bit but not substantially.”
Rising gold prices have led some jewelers to make lighter pieces to soften the blow to clients’ pockets, but Maria Christina said this was not an option for Buccellati.
“We would never give up our quality in spite of price. This is something that is a philosophy of our company — quality first. We might produce less objects but we do not change our quality.”
Industry executives and analysts say Italian jewellery makers — mostly small, family-run companies — need to restructure and maybe even merge if they are to maintain their top positions in the luxury goods market.
But Buccellati prefers to remain a family business, with Gianmaria’s sons also involved and no outside designers. Gianmaria, who drew his first design at the age of 12, remains hands-on. “I can do everything that my workers do,” he said.
Family-controlled companies are the backbone of the Italian economy, from Agnelli’s Fiat and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset media empire, to jewelers Bulgari.
And the Buccellati family believes the model suits them.
“Being a family business, it helps keep the philosophy, the structure as it is, that’s what we want,” Maria Christina said.
“For the time being, we don’t need anything else.”
Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Svetlana Kovalyova; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile