by Roderick Conway Morris

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Tony Lovison
Annamaria Zanella in her workshop in Padua

From Basics to Beauty in Jewelry Making

By Roderick Conway Morris
PADUA, Italy 12 September 2014


Annamaria Zanella is both a typical and an untypical product of the celebrated Padua gold school of jewelers. Starting at the age of 13, she underwent the exceptionally rigorous training in gold-working that is the mark of the Istituto d'Arte Pietro Selvatico in Padua, the powerhouse from which this group of artists emerged.

But from early on she was something of a maverick. The Selvatico's inspirational director, Mario Pinton, had always encouraged his students to broaden their artistic and intellectual horizons, but the working of gold, albeit in diverse and avant-garde ways, remained fundamental to the institute's ethos. Ms. Zanella, while passionate about making jewelry, was more ambivalent about the primary material.

'The problem with gold is that it is beautiful in itself,' she said. 'The color is so fascinating, it comes from the depths of the earth and it is so freighted with history. It already has so much to say for itself. Gold has many associations: with kings, popes, riches, money.

'So, in making jewelry, I decided to take another course. I took poor materials and tried to add value by making them into something else,' said Ms. Zanella, at her studio-home in Sant'Angelo di Piove di Sacco, south of Padua, where she lives with her husband, Renzo Pasquale, also an internationally known jeweler and former Selvatico teacher.

When she applied to the institute, in 1980, she wanted to enter the textiles department to study fashion design, but all the places were already filled and she was pointed toward the jewelry section instead. There she showed such a flair that she topped her class at the end of the first year and was awarded a scholarship to continue. On graduating in 1985, she was invited to return as a teacher in jewelry design.

Supported by her teaching income, she took a second qualification, in sculpture, at the Accademia di Belle Arti, in Venice, where she had an opportunity to deepen her knowledge of other disciplines and of modern and contemporary art.

'I was especially struck by the Arte Povera artists of the 1970s and the fact that they were no longer using traditional artistic tools — brushes, canvases, paints, marble and chisels,' she said. 'This encouraged me to try to make jewelry using nails, old pieces of iron, bits of sacking — things that had been thrown away or that I could find around the house.'

Starting with waste products and base metals, she demonstrated that the alchemical process of creativity — and her unusual ways of working her materials — could transform them into beautiful and precious things.

'I exhibited my works and they were well received, but I couldn't sell them,' she recalled. 'For years I survived solely on my teacher's salary at the institute. But then, at last, people began to buy.'

She sold her first piece — 'Water,' from a quartet of element-inspired brooches — to an Austrian collector in 2001. Her work has since been bought by many private collectors and more than a dozen museums and public galleries on both sides of the Atlantic.

'My starting point is with materials, which I experiment with in various ways, treating them with flame, acids, enamels, colors,' she said, 'after which, I put them aside. Then I try to synthesize them with various ideas, that might come from an experience, a book, a piece of music, an exhibition, a poem. I then do drawings and watercolors. I make a model in stiff card to check the dimensions, the proportions, as if I were making a piece of sculpture.

'All my pieces have significance. Nothing is random. They are like an autobiography I write with my materials,' she added. 'I write the story of my life through them. They are not simply pieces of decoration.'

Most of her pieces are designed to be worn, but for some, which remain particularly personal, this is not the main priority. An example is her ring 'Untitled,' made after a car crash in the early 1990s from shards of broken glass gathered from the road and bound in a double loop of iron inlaid with a thin spiral of gold.

A trip to Sicily produced 'Boats from Africa' (2010), made from steel fabric, titanium, enamels, gold and acrylic. In front of a fisherman's house that she and her husband had rented was the beached wreck of a boat that had sunk offshore, carrying illegal migrants from North Africa. 'This made a great impression on me,' she said. 'I made drawings of the boat and then made a necklace of little boats bringing together the colors of Africa. And I symbolically strung these little boats together so that they would not get lost at sea in the dark.'

'At first I used mainly waste materials, rehabilitating them, as it were, and turning them into something else,' she said: 'I now often use other industrial materials, such as steel fabrics manufactured for chemical filters, used in dialysis.'

'Some of these are very expensive,' she added. 'But I treat these in a similar way, with fire, oxidizing and coloring them. I still use gold and silver very sparingly, to add a flash of light, perhaps.'

Using high-grade industrial steel fabrics and similar materials, she has made pieces that combine extraordinary softness and flexibility with durability.

'I very much like making brooches, because of the expressive freedom they give you,' she said. 'They cannot be too heavy, not more than 50 grams, but with 50 grams you can do whatever you want.'

The sources of these intriguing pieces are wide ranging: 'Blue Tree' (2005) was inspired by the sky blues and gold of Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua; 'Narcissus,' which incorporates a tiny mirror, by the ancient myth; and 'The Queen of the Night' by Mozart's 'Magic Flute.'

Sixteen years ago, Ms. Zanella began to suffer from multiple sclerosis. This forced her to give up her post at the Selvatico institute in 2000. She still misses her contacts with students. 'I loved teaching so much,' she said. But the enormous physical challenges that she now has to confront have not stemmed the flow of her creativity.

'My work has helped me not to think too much of what might happen tomorrow and not to become obsessed by the pain that came with the illness,' she said. 'When I work, when I am doing something creative, I am absorbed in it. It is like a kind of auto-psychotherapy. I detach myself from the pain and the depression of the disease.'

'Sometimes my state of mind is reflected in my pieces. But there is always color — color gives energy, gives light, illuminates.'

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024