In Gucci’s Hortus Deliciarum collection for 2022, the fashion house’s identity in high jewelry crystallizes through a potent mix of kaleidoscopic gemstones and a kind of brazen effervescence all too clearly recognized as a hallmark of Alessandro Michele’s virtuosic flair.
To wander around the hallowed halls of Villa Albani-Torlonia in Rome, being surrounded by its vast collection of art and antiquities numbering to the hundreds—a collection that includes masterpieces even top museums would be grateful to possess—was a privilege that one will remember for as long as time allows. Lauded as the cradle of neoclassicism, this villa has survived 275 years of history under the auspices of Fondazione Torlonia, its sprawling grounds of towering pine woods and oak-lined avenues leading to an exquisite parterre.
Commissioned in 1747 by Cardinal Alessandro Albani, who had an impressive collection of classical art, the villa’s interiors are frescoed in marble. Desiring to stay true to French philosopher René Descartes’ maxim of never leaving any space empty, the cardinal also had it filled to the brim with sculptures, mosaics and stuccoes over floors, walls and ceilings as well as every nook and cranny as far as the eye can see. Among the names involved in its conception and design was the German art historian, JJ Winckelmann, whose role in the rise of neoclassicism can never be downplayed.
Villa Albani-Torlonia was more than a place of residence, it was also a cultural venue. As such, it embodied the highest expressions of the antiquarian taste that defined Rome as the ultimate destination of the European custom known as the Grand Tour, especially for generations of art students who came in search of inspiration from the (then) newly discovered Greco-Roman ideals. And this inescapable sensory overload, this miasma of devastating beauty, was the frame of mind that Alessandro Michele wanted to relay at Gucci’s presentation of its new Hortus Deliciarum high jewelry collection one bright summer morning.
Hortus Deliciarum is the third high jewelry collection by Gucci in as many years and it is also the fashion house’s most expressive one to date. Composed of unique pieces designed by its creative director and divided into five core themes, the collection takes us on an imaginary Grand Tour of destinations, timelines and locales. Michele’s flair for excess and a maximalist aesthetic is writ larger in high jewelry, a liberty he takes with childlike glee.
“What I’m doing is to explore, in the same way as I do with clothes and all the other things. It is just my way of working. I’m navigating a crazy world of stones, inspiration, history… things that come from the Georgian era, English jewelry, Italian jewelry. Finally I’m trying to bring my passion and know-how into this area,” he shares.
Yet by looking at his creations, it is apparent that Michele isn’t repeating ancient history. “I’m that kind of person who doesn’t care where an idea came from. I w ant to play with it. Let’s try to do something that looks like a Georgian era jewel or we can do something with the French tremblant [style]. I was just playing in such a beautiful way and now it’s already been three years. Working with beautiful things is one of the most interesting things for a fashion designer or any designer. It’s like a trip.”
Fittingly, the new Hortus Deliciarum collection includes Michele’s home city of Rome. As a matter of fact, this is where it begins. He chronicles a dreamlike journey around the city, seeing and touching all the beautiful landmarks in their original splendor. His ‘vehicle’ of choice in this case would be the antique micro-mosaic pieces taking pride of place in necklaces, bracelets, earrings, brooches and pendants. A beloved Roman tradition, these handcrafted antiques date between 1850 and 1870, when they were especially popular worn as jewelry during the Grand Tour period.
Michele adds: “I was thinking about how beautiful the idea was that jewelry can tell a story. In the past, these specific jewels were really like little movies, little storybooks. I collect micro-mosaics from the 18th and 19th centuries. I find them fascinating because with them it becomes not just about the gold or the high jewelry, but the work, the time spent getting crazy about all those little pieces.”
Depicting iconic sights of Rome, from the Colosseum and Piazza San Pietro to the Pantheon and Roman Forum, as well as the Temple of Vesta, Temple of Hercules at Cori, the Tivoli waterfall, and the Pyramid of Cestius, the cameos are framed with colored enamel and then set in gold. Elevating them into the realm of high jewelry are a bevy of precious gemstones including diamonds in an array of different cuts and a full spectrum of colored gemstones such as peridots, beryls, spinels, topazes, opals, tourmalines, and more.
After Rome, Hortus Deliciarum sojourns farther afield into exotic India. This is where the collection begins to take on a kaleidoscopic beauty. Bold, rich colors evoke the lush greenery and powerful geometrical forms that bring to mind the country’s royal palaces. Gemstones in fiery tones align with strands of woven gold, accentuated by diamonds and enamel.
Meanwhile, pearls make an appearance for the first time in Gucci high jewelry, but they’re nothing like the classic strings of pearls your grandmother would wear. “If you want to say something new to the market, you can do it. Do something that hasn’t been done before. Because I’ve felt that high jewelry in recent years was about super precious stones. I like to open up crazy conversations, thinking what would happen if we did something new but also interesting. It’ll be like we’re opening up new doors in the same playground.”
His refreshing take on high jewelry allowed Michele to see gemstones through a markedly different lens. The fourth chapter of Hortus Deliciarum swings by New York in the 1930s, where modernism abounds and skyscrapers reach for the clouds. Shapes move from fluid and organic to strong and geometric, even asymmetric and constructed with structural details. All that orderliness is then abruptly, yet expertly, deconstructed with grandiose stones.
Lastly, Hortus Deliciarum arrives at the final chapter of Michele’s long travel diary—a time, rather than a place: the 1970s. Arguably his favourite era. Here is where psychedelic colours and fabulous shapes intermingle with no restraint. Among the many highlights, a sautoir set with a jaw-dropping 172.4-carat Colombian emerald steals the show. Extraordinary not just for its incredible size but also its unique cut, this hexagonal portrait-cut stone was like a picture painted of inclusions. Also known as jardins, the unique pattern sweeps in from the side of the stone towards its centre, like a tidal wave about to crash onto the shore.
Remembering the first time he set eyes on the stone, Michele smiles. “I was at home when they sent me pictures of the stone. I’d never seen anything like it. It was very emotional for me. I was imagining who might the owner be, what the color was in real life and the inclusions. I was already dreaming of putting the stone in a sautoir. They asked me if I’m sure about it, so I said, ‘please try to buy it’ and we got it. It’s like a fairy-tale. And then when I saw it in reality, I couldn’t believe that nature can create something so beautiful.”
He lavished his wildest fantasies on this exquisite stone, imagining it as something an aristocratic British family might have acquired while going through India, then setting it into a hippie-chic sautoir and finally wearing it across the Atlantic in the New World. Michele paired it with a geometric white gold and diamond chain, and set it with red enamel griffes designed like the claws of a mythical beast—a style that is flamboyant by choice and not classical in the least, but 100 percent Gucci and 1,000 percent Alessandro Michele.
Indeed, as a fashion designer and an ardent jewelry lover, Michele ought be dubbed the new enfant terrible of high jewelry. The one who revels in breaking down barriers just to see if something wonderful might come out of it. “I was trying to dream,” he says of his approach to high jewelry. “I am pretty obsessed with jewelry. I collect jewelry. Gemstones and things that belong to that kind of work is a space that doesn’t exist, like between the sky and the earth. Jewels are like stars to me, it’s all just,” he sighs, “amazing.”
A version of this article appeared in Vogue Philippines’ December-January 2023 Issue, available for purchase now.
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