Fortunato Pio Castellani

Walking down the vintage shops in London’s Brick Lane and you’ll see how retro fashion continues to inspire people everyday. It’s not new. people have been finding fashion inspiration from history throughout, well, history.

In the 19th century, one of the most famous jewellers that defined European trends was Fortunato Pio Castellani. Born in 1794, Castellani began work as a master goldsmith in his father’s workshop before opening his own shop in Rome in 1814. Then, in the 1850s, he began attracting attention for being a leading figure in what was called the ‘classical revival’, the surging interest in old-style Grecian jewellery techniques. While jewellers up until that point often did not pay too much attention to history, doubting the relevance of long-gone fashions to the present-day, Castellani and his two sons, who joined him in his workshop, were fascinated with ancient jewellery techniques and sought to apply them to their own work.

Castellani was particularly interested in Greek and Etruscan classicism. His workshop would produce stunning gold jewellery pieces that used classical motifs like shells, urns, and amphorae. What was particularly special about Etruscan jewellery was its ‘granulation’ technique. Granulation involved covering a gold surface with small granules of precious metal, allowing for very detailed and delicate designs. Castellani studied Etruscan granulation closely, and later claimed to have discovered the secret method behind it – though never revealing this in public.

Etruscan earring. 400–300 BC. British Museum.

The Castellanis took a lot of inspiration from historical excavations that were happening at the time. The Regolini Galassi tomb, for example, was a major source of inspiration for Castellani. It was one of the richest Estrucan family tombs and was only discovered in 1836 in Cerveteri, a town in Italy. Castellani, known then for his interest in Estrucan designs, was enlisted to be an adviser in the tomb’s excavation. Castellani’s creations would often by inspired by, or replicate, the jewellery discovered in Estrucan tombs like the Galassi tomb and other contemporary archaeological discoveries.

By that time, Castellani’s Estrucan-inspired designs became all the rage across Italy, France, and England. His workshop was often visited by members of the aristocracy. Fashionable women wore their bracelets and fringed necklaces in Greek style, brooches with Latin and Greek inscriptions and oak-leaved diadems. His workshop, by that point under the direction of his sons Alessandra and Augusto, became involved in helping the trade of antiquities, sponsoring excavations and restoring artefacts.

This trend continued for just under three decades, and only began to wane in 1880. After that, Castellani’s workshop passed onto Augusto’s son Alfredo, who ran the firm until his death in 1914. Yet every time someone today takes inspiration from vintage jewellery, you can see the spirit of Castellani live on.