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Although the spirit of the times certainly drove more jewelers to create the avant-garde, the seeds of this metamorphosis belong to an earlier decade. In the late 1940s, Mario Masenza, a third-generation jeweler, invited Italian contemporary painters and sculptors to design jewelry to be realized in the Masenza workshop in Rome. Artists of the past were no stranger to working at the bench. In the Renaissance, it was traditional for them to be proficient in different mediums, including goldsmithing. Great masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea Mantegna learned these skills as part of their artistic training. Masenza’s objective for this collaboration was to revitalize the declining jewelry trade in Italy following World War II. Over 30 artists accepted the invitation.

Masenza succeeded in creating a strong association between art and jewelry-making with this venture, resulting in the infusion of a more modern aesthetic in Italian design. This included innovative textures and the concept of abstraction. The outcome of this partnership was first shown in an exhibition at the Galleria Il Milione in Milan in 1949, which included two of the artists whose work is shown here—Afro Basaldella and Franco Cannilla. By the mid-1950s, this style of jewelry was widespread and popular enough to be featured in Italian fashion magazines.