A young quarry of craftsmen puts into operation every day the largest jewelry production plant in Europe, the Manifattura Bulgari. We visited this complex that the Italian house has built in Valenza, a town that in the 19th century was the epicenter of goldsmithing on the continent.
In the early 19th century, master craftsman Francesco Caramora had a hunch. Trained in the art of goldsmithing that had been carried out in Voghera, in his native Pavia, since ancient times, he decided to head for Valenza, a farming village in the Alessandria region of northern Italy. There he set up his production workshop, from which he would pass on the noble craft of metalworking to future disciples. Thus the foundations were laid for what would soon be considered the epicenter of goldsmithing in Europe. Today, the district of Valenza includes eight municipalities specialized in the production of jewelry and high-end goldsmiths’ pieces, the region with the highest density of goldsmiths in Italy and of companies linked to the made in Italy shine that defend the slow and meticulous work of its artisans against the frenetic industrial production times.
On the outskirts of the city, the sign of one of the factories stands out from the rest. These are the golden letters announcing the entrance to the Manifattura Bulgari, the epitome of Italian luxury since its creation in 1884: “We wanted the memory of Bulgari’s aesthetics to be present from a contemporary point of view. It is a unique manufacture that conveys the essence of the Bulgari universe, between legacy and future,” explains Mauro di Roberto, director of the firm’s jewelry area, minutes before the tour of its facilities.
With a total area of 15,000 square meters, Caramora’s heritage is palpable in every corner of this production plant inaugurated in 2017. Its design, by the architectural firm Open Project, is made up of two buildings with well-differentiated and connected styles. The more voluminous, new-build complex houses the production halls under a metal skin free of visual barriers facing nature. It consists of three floors distributed around an inner courtyard of about 600 square meters, an architectural challenge that guarantees natural light at each workstation. The second building, completely restored and enlarged with a new glass-covered wing, is a symbol of the city. It is the Cascina dell’Orefice, the farmhouse that Caramora acquired in 1860 as a residence and workplace, and which enjoyed international fame. There are even references to his workshop on Napoleonic maps. “This is a historic place. The first jewelry production was made here, so it seemed extremely valuable to us to plan the plant in this location,” notes Mauro di Roberto. Caramora’s fame and work, which made Valenza the gold capital of the world, did not exempt it from debts. The farmhouse was put up for sale after his death. It was bought by one of his assistants, Piero Canti. Two centuries later, now in the hands of the Bulgari empire and as an emblem of the LVMH group to which the Italian firm belongs, the same energy that Caramora transmitted to his students is still alive in the bowels of the largest jewelry manufacture in Europe.
After leaving the historic area, destined for offices and meeting rooms and armed by elements common to its stores around the world (geometric lattices, Italian marble and oak wood or the eight-pointed star), one enters the production facilities, a laboratory of craftsmanship that moves fluidly between past and future whose starting point is in the modeling rooms. Here, ancestral techniques such as wax molding, used for small pieces of little formal complexity, are mixed with 3D printing, intended for more complex parts. This is followed by the 18 islands that make up the production plant. Martina, 32, is in charge of one of them. Wearing leopard-print sneakers and horn-rimmed glasses, this mechanical engineer joined the factory five years ago. “Here we all learn to do everything,” she announces, referring to each of the stages of the process by which the gold piece taken out of the mold is transformed into a goldsmith’s jewel. From the assembly to the engraving of the famous made in Italy, through the inlaying of diamonds and precious stones or the soaping. Its methodology follows the traditional steps established by goldsmiths like Caramora, but supervised by digital screens.
To enhance the value of the space in which its artisans work, the construction of the building itself was subordinated to an ambitious sustainability plan that received the international Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certificate, which is awarded to projects with low environmental impact in their planning. “The space maximizes the use of natural light along with led lighting in the facilities. It uses only electricity from renewable sources. It also uses irrigation systems that allow water to be reused, reducing consumption by up to 42%,” says Eleonora Rizzuto, Bulgari’s director of corporate social responsibility.
The number of pieces that leave their workshops takes a back seat to the hours that each artisan puts in at the various stages of production. “That’s what really adds value to the jewelry,” Di Roberto points out. The hands of its craftsmen work on some of the Italian firm’s most precious pieces, such as the faceted spirals that pay homage to the Colosseum of Rome in the B.zero1 line or the characteristic articulated cord of the Serpenti pieces, the most laborious in the brand’s catalog. Sculpted in white gold and recognizable by the two emeralds that shape the eyes of the reptile, some of them have up to 82 hand-encrusted diamonds. As Martina explains, this task involves the work of three people for a whole week. A meticulous job of which she is very proud: “I used to work in the food industry, but this is much more interesting, you know what jewelry means to a girl”.
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The artisanal work carried out by this young quarry of craftsmen in Valenza is added to Bulgari’s high jewelry laboratory in Rome, the accessories factory in Florence and the watchmaking workshops owned by the brand in Switzerland. One more chapter of this well-matched marriage that the Italian firm has established with the craftsmanship of its country throughout its history and that, like the diamonds that embellish their craftsmen every day, seems unbreakable for the moment.