Generations of Jewelry in a Small Italian City

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Generations of Jewelry in a Small Italian City

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LUCCA, Italy — On a narrow cobbled thoroughfare in this small Tuscan city, one shop’s windows glimmer with jewelry created over centuries.

Gioielleria Carli, founded in 1655, promotes itself as Italy’s oldest jewelry store. Hanging from its rib-vaulted ceilings, hand-painted in plaids and fleur-de-lis, crystal chandeliers illuminate a museum-worthy exhibition of antique jewels and silver tableware. But the precious pieces are all for sale.

Pietro Carli, 89 and the 12th generation to lead his family’s business, descends each workday from his apartment two flights up to oversee the running of the shop’s pair of pocket-size salesrooms on Via Fillungo. “You have to stay active to survive,” he declared, looking for affirmation from a silver-headed client at the marble counter.

Portable display cases of ornately carved wood, said to have inspired the storefronts for jewelers on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, offer pedestrians a chance to view jewelry through history.CreditClara Vannucci for The New York Times

Mr. Carli walks with a cane now, but his sweptback hair and abundant mustache, his tailored camel blazer and his way of peppering every statement with “bello” and “bellissimo” reflect an undimmed enthusiasm for the finer things of life.

“What you think doesn’t exist anymore, you can find it here,” Mr. Carli said, caressing a pair of brooches — delicate bouquets rendered in a large handful of rose-cut diamonds, crafted by a Carli in the early 1700s. “Seeing these beautiful things, that’s what keeps me working.”

He took an enormous gold parure, another creation by a family goldsmith of the same era, from behind the beveled glass of a spire-shaped display case. Hand-wrought from 22-karat gold, the exaggerated forms and scroll motifs of the shoulder-dusting earrings and bodice-length brooch would suit a ’60s wild child but they were made to adorn a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The boutique displays only a small portion of the business’s approximately 3,000 gold and silver pieces; the rest are in an 18th-century safe and in storage. Some were made in the shop by Mr. Carli’s ancestors or by members of another family of goldsmiths who, for generations, fabricated custom creations for the business. Other pieces were purchased from residents who wanted to trade their heirlooms for cash.

Gold earrings created by a member of the Carli family in the early 1700s.CreditClara Vannucci for The New York Times

Diverse in style and era, the merchandise reflects its wide provenance. An 18th-century diamond brooch, priced at 17,000 euros ($19,830) was shown alongside a flowery Bourbon-era pendant in pink gold for €1,200 and an Art Nouveau garnet and gold cuff bracelet for €2,500. In the streetside windows, Georgian, Empire, neo-Classical, Victorian and Art Deco styles intermingled, a survey of jewelry history for pedestrians.

“Hold on to the past as long as you can,” a 16th-century architect, Jacopo Seghizzi, is said to have told the city of Lucca. Seghizzi designed its immense brick ring wall, built to defend the wealthy city-state; it still encircles the city center, where about 8,800 of Lucca’s more than 90,000 residents live. Never used in battle, the wall instead preserved signs of the small town’s illustrious past as a place where coins were minted, banks were powerful, silks were woven — and jewelry, as a craft and a possession, thrived.

Carlo Carli, Mr. Carli’s 17th-century ancestor, trained as a goldsmith in Belgium before opening his atelier 362 years ago in a former silk-making shop on what was then called Via Pantera — Lucca’s principal thoroughfare since the Romans’ arrival in 180 B.C.

A talented craftsman, he worked on a crown for the famed sculpture of Jesus in Lucca’s main cathedral, alloyed metals for the city’s coin mint and created intricate, gem-encrusted jewelry for his clients.

The interior of the store has changed very little since 1831, when a brash, internationally minded 21-year-old Luigi Carli took charge.CreditClara Vannucci for The New York Times

His descendants stuck to making custom jewelry until 1831, when a brash, internationally minded 21-year-old Luigi Carli took charge. He became the first merchant in Lucca to import finished goods, stocking his shelves with ready-made jewelry from France, Switzerland and other parts of Italy, alongside cutlery and holloware made by the silversmiths of England. And he began buying back any of the original Carli jewelry that he could find.

He also transformed Gioielleria Carli into the elegant, Romantic-era boutique that it remains today. The checkerboard marble floor, the frescoed arches, the wood vitrines tooled with intricate flowers and corkscrew columns, even the gold and glass bell-jar clock that chimes on the hour — nothing has changed since his 19th-century renovation of the shop. An 1843 photograph of Luigi Carli (with slicked-back hair and a handlebar mustache much like his descendant’s) shows a mirror vision of today’s emporium reflected in black and white.

Among the enduring features are the portable display cases of ornately chiseled wood that flank the boutique’s main entrance, and which are carried inside at lunchtime and in the evening. They are said to have inspired the intricate (but immobile) storefronts created for the jewelers that line the Ponte Vecchio in Florence after the Arno River flood of 1865 ruined the originals.

In Fascist times, the government demanded that the old-fashioned windows be modernized in preparation for a visit by Mussolini, but Mr. Carli’s father defiantly resisted and the storefront remained unchanged.

The boutique displays only a small portion of the business’s approximately 3,000 gold and silver pieces; the rest are in an 18th-century safe and in storage.CreditClara Vannucci for The New York Times

Over the years, he said, their contents have attracted the director Luchino Visconti; the actor Marcello Mastroianni; the poet Giovanni Pascoli; Giuseppe Mazzini, a leading activist for the unification of Italy; countless royals and Lucca’s most famous local son, the composer Giacomo Puccini.

Today, the shop depends on business from tourists as the city has been less prosperous since the economic downturn in 2007.

Alessandro Tambellini, the city’s mayor, said that laws governing artistic heritage protect the furnishings and signage of Carli and other old shops. “These rules maintain the look of Lucca created by the historical commerce that has shaped our city,” he said, seated in his silk-walled office in city hall, in the 16th century Palazzo Orsetti. But physical conservation is not enough to maintain old-fashioned enterprises struggling to remain in business, and many of Lucca’s streets are now lined with modern shops and chain stores.

Pietro Carli will pass the family store on to his children, Giuseppe, 56, and Carla, 58, who work the sales floor with him. Neither has children to follow them into the business.

As her brother tinkered with antique watches in the back room, Ms. Carli brooded over a few pairs of filigree earrings from the 18th century, and said sadly, “We were born into this shop, but we’ll close it someday.”

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