“All of our artisans are closed,” said Madina Visconti di Modrone, who at the time of our interview had been confined to her apartment due to the nationwide quarantine. Her store, in Milan’s Cinque Vie neighborhood, which doubles as an atelier, had been closed for weeks; production, too, had ground to a halt. Just a few weeks later, Italy, even especially hard-hit Milan, would be well into reopening its economy.
Usually busy with the store, Visconti, 29, used the time as a chance to study the old botanical books she inherited from her grandmother. Visconti, whose eponymous jewelry brand is known for its lush, intricate designs, cast her first jewel when she was 12. Her mother, Osanna, also a jewelry designer, recognized her daughter’s talent early and encouraged her craft—first in wax initials, then moving on to silver. (The designer recently revived that childhood memory with her “Name” collection, which features a series of pendants with initials.) Today, Visconti still drafts her new designs in wax before local goldsmiths convert them to metalwork jewelry.
Bronze is a signature material in Visconti’s collections. It’s her favorite metal, she says, because it’s less ubiquitous, in jewelry, than gold and silver. “It’s very unstable: it contains copper, which stains the skin and is prone to changing colors and oxidation,” she says. “But that’s what I like about it,” she adds—that feeling that “it’s almost alive.” Visconti also looks to the glamour of old movies in her work. One of her latest collections, Astri (Italian for “stars”), stems from Luchino Visconti’s 1954 film, Senso, in which the lead actress, Alida Valli, sports star-shaped hair ornaments. “Visconti is a huge source of pride for our family,” she says (the director was a brother of her great-grandfather’s). Another one of her collections, featuring beautifully crafted snake-shaped pieces, was inspired by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 epic historical drama, Cleopatra.
But back to those botanical books: nature is the main source of inspiration for Visconti, who turns clusters of branches, ivy leaves, pansies, and butterfly wings into opulent bracelets, earrings, rings, and hair accessories available again in the newly opened storefront, at various other boutiques around the world, or online on her Web site. “Organic forms lend themselves to being adapted into jewelry,” she explains, and the final products “pair well with the natural shapes of the body. Branches, for example, naturally climb around your wrists, ears, décolletage—they have a natural movement.”
Visconti credits the time spent at her family’s countryside estate in Grazzano, just south of Milan, for her love of nature. Her parents, Osanna and the art-gallery owner Giangaleazzo Visconti, are both devoted gardeners. Visconti, meanwhile, is lacking when it comes to a green thumb, she says; while she’s attached to her small palm tree, her ferns, and the asparagus she’s growing on her terrace in Milan, she recently admitted to caving in and buying an automatic-watering system after her previous cohort of plants shriveled: “I’d rather cast plants and flowers in bronze, so they’ll never die.”
Angelica Frey is a writer and translator based in Brooklyn