FLORENCE, Italy – “Ponte Vecchio lives off Americans,” said Fadi Ayshoh, Retail Director of Gold Art Boutique, as he optimistically positioned a five-carat diamond priced at € 160,000 in the window. “This will sit here until the Americans come back. Then it is sold immediately. “
In the past few days, hope has increased among jewelry stores on this medieval bridge since Italy dropped quarantine requirements for travelers from the European Union, the United Kingdom and Israel and opened its doors to a handful of flights for Covid-tested passengers from the United States States and other countries.
“This summer we won’t have the numbers we had in 2019, but we will have good people,” said Ayshoh. “People who really love Italy.”
Florence’s Renaissance past is most evident at the Ponte Vecchio. The cobblestone street is lined with 48 pocket-sized jewelry stores and a jumble of gravity-defying work areas behind the bridge girders.
Ponte Vecchio was built in 1345 at the closest intersection of the Arno and was originally a street market for butchers and fishmongers. After the Medici Vasari Corridor was built, the family could easily cross the bridge, a decree by Ferdinando I de ‘of 1593 Medici replaced these malodorous operations with goldsmiths and jewelry dealers. To date, the shops are exclusively reserved for jewelers, although most of the artisans who work with them have moved just behind the bridge’s expensive trading routes.
Like much of the rest of the city, the business of the bridge was boosted and damaged by tourism – and then almost starved to death by the sudden absence caused by pandemics.
Before the spread of the coronavirus, Gold Art had an annual turnover of 10 million euros. Now the three Gold Art locations in Ponte Vecchio can go weeks without a single transaction, yet each location has to pay 15,000 to 25,000 euros in rent every month.
The bestsellers had no brand names: the Florentine gold pieces made by craftsmen nearby, with their delicate saws and shimmering engraved surfaces, could trace their manufacturing methods back to Renaissance techniques developed along this bridge.
“Our customers bought them like candy,” said Ayshoh, “because they can’t get this Florentine workmanship anywhere else in the world.”
The city’s goldsmiths have long been celebrated as virtuosos of engraving, fretwork, niello inlay, damascene inlay, repoussé and other highly specialized techniques. And a number of artistic titans of the Renaissance emerged from their ranks, including Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti.
The invasion ‘
In 2019, hotels and vacation rentals had 11 million visitors, and some of the city’s 367,000 residents marched on the streets to protest the onslaught. By 2020, the city center was virtually empty from the sudden disappearance of visitors, and the municipal budget was 160 million euros, 25 percent of the total.
“A city like Florence was occupied – fortunately! – From tourism, ”said Roberto Vaggi, the second generation owner of S. Vaggi, his family’s antique and silver shop on the corner of Ponte Vecchio. “How else could a city this size support a bridge full of luxury products like this?”
In the last few days, two S. Vaggi employees have moved from the sales area to an office on the upper floor in order to process e-mail and telephone inquiries from long-term customers – just as business is now done here. Like almost all Ponte Vecchio shops, S. Vaggi does not have an online shop.
Mr Vaggi’s antiques include honeycomb-cut gold pendants with diamonds, silver repoussé terrines, and the micro-mosaics that were the original Grand Tour travel souvenirs. No doubt some returning tourists will look for such items, others will have different tastes.
Cassetti, a family-run company with four shops in Ponte Vecchio, was founded in 1926 as a silversmith. Today, its windows are dedicated to multinational giants like Rolex, Vacheron Constantin and Cartier – brands that customers can buy in any city in the world. Admitted the owner Filippo Cassetti. However, he also bragged about the introduction of status symbol watch sales on Ponte Vecchio and insisted that “luxury offers like mine increase the level of tourism, just like a five-star hotel”.
When the last lockdown in the region ended on April 17th, only the luxury watches from Cassetti attracted a steady stream of customers. The rest of Ponte Vecchio was deserted and lacking the usual crowd of selfie shooters.
Most of the little shops are not open at all, still closed by Madielle, the distinctive heavy wood and iron shutters that have protected them over the centuries.
“We used to see hundreds of people in our shops every day,” complained Giuditta Biscioni, president of the Ponte Vecchio association, which represents the bridge’s business. “Now we’re all alone.” She said she doesn’t have annual income numbers, but estimated that member firms’ profits were down 80 percent over the past year.
And the artisan community that works with them is even more vulnerable, she said, adding, “When we’re closed, they’re on their knees.”
While the government allowed family-run and independent workshops to stay open throughout the lockdown, most had little to do – and artisans were only entitled to a few small stimulus payments. Shopkeepers received government compensation for the closure, even though that was only about 3 percent of the loss of income. Employees were given partially funded vacation days, but there were complaints of extreme payment delays.
“We are now devouring the income from the past,” said Daniela Messeri, who had held a lace gold bracelet in her hand at Nerdi Orafi, her family’s studio since 1948.
Nerdi, whose handcrafted jewels reflect classic Florentine art, is one of 20 workshops in the Casa dell’Orafo, a monastery north of Ponte Vecchio that was converted into studios for engravers, stone setters and goldsmiths four centuries ago.
Casa dell’Orafo artisans still run Ponte Vecchio’s shops, but Nerdi himself thrived during the travel boom when well-informed tourists bought direct from the workshop. “We all live off tourists in the center of Florence,” said Ms. Messeri when her goldsmith engraved a gold ring with delicate flowers on Nerdi’s bench. “But some of us are still trying to carry on the old traditions.”
In Fratelli Piccini, a boutique from 1903, the fourth generation owner, Elisa Piccini, employs one of the few goldsmiths still on the Ponte Vecchio. “There should have been regulations earlier to help craftsmen,” she said with a sigh.
Her 21-year-old goldsmith Carlotta Gambineri soldered a detachable pendant with garnet beads for a pink tourmaline collar – one of the many custom-made items she designed. “Some traditions deserve support,” said Ms. Piccini.
Like the city itself, she added, looking out of the boutique’s picture window at the Uffizi Gallery, which towered over the river.
“The city of Florence is like a museum,” said Ms. Piccini. “And a museum needs a ticket and a fixed capacity.”