Christina Elia explores the history of micro mosaics and talks to Margo Anton and Corinna Butler about the art of creating micro mosaic and glass jewelry.
Written and narrated by Christina Elia
From the villas of Ancient Rome to the ornate interiors of Byzantine churches, mosaic has long served as a medium of choice for incredible artists throughout history. By the 18th century, it had taken hold in Italy in particular, and cultural hubs like the Vatican Mosaic Workshop boomed with special commissions by Pope Gregory XIII himself. But the increase in demand also led to an overflow of trained artisans flooding the market, meaning those with more downtime between projects needed a new way to boost their income. Before long, a combination of creative ingenuity and economic necessity birthed what we now know as the micro mosaic – a portable, pocket-sized artwork that could be conveniently sold to private collectors.
In its most classic interpretation, a micro mosaic consists of small, individual cubes of glass or enamel, also known as tesserae. One of the most common types of tesserae is smalti, dyed squares of glass that are pulled into thin, long rods called filati and then left to cool. Early micro mosaic artists favored filati for producing dainty yet complex designs, ideal for cutting up and neatly assembling into tiny portraits or landscapes. After polishing, some tesserae were so minuscule and smooth that the pieces were barely perceptible to the naked eye. Beloved as a kind of beautiful memento, these miniature souvenirs grew in popularity in the late 18th century because of The Grand Tour, a rite of passage where wealthy young men traveled through Europe to soak up centuries of historical and cultural splendor.
While micro mosaics continued to flourish in Italy as a lavish and compact keepsake, an artist named Giacomo Raffaelli pioneered the art of micro mosaic jewelry in the late 18th century. Prominent micro mosaics of the day often depicted neo-classical landmarks, but Raffaelli preferred brooches with naturalistic scenes, with animals, flowers, and awe-inspiring panoramas. Once he founded the School of Mosaics in Milan, he accomplished his magnum opus (the Latin phrase for “masterpiece”) by 1814, when he finally finished recreating Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in micro mosaic – a painstaking task that took around eight years. Countless other skilled artisans gained prestige in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the Barberi and Castellani families, though the genre largely fell out of fashion by the early 1900s, replaced by the glitz of modern movements like Art Deco.
Still, the time-honored tradition of micro mosaic, specifically micro mosaic jewelry, remains a blossoming industry today due to the dedication of talented craftspeople far and wide, each putting a different spin on the rich custom. Canadian-born artist Margo Anton represents one example. She had a brief interest in jewelry making as a child, when she dabbled in origami earrings, but she didn’t ignite her passion for mosaic until years later in college during an archaeological dig in Italy. After a failed stint in the corporate arena, she experimented with mosaic more and more, challenging herself physically and intellectually. “One of the big things that drew me to it was the continuity, from artists hundreds of years ago until today,” Anton explains. “It’s more hands-on than painting as well. You get to manipulate materials to produce something with visual impact.”
Pictured above: Jewelry by Margo Anton
Over the years, Anton established a following by teaching workshops and even starting a blog called Mosaic A Day, where she wrote about creating a small mosaic five days a week and included jewelry too. But in 2014, various factors in her personal life caused her to recognize how much she yearned to see the world. “It was me realizing I needed to be doing something creative with my life,” Anton says. “I started my trip in Turkey, and the idea was to go all across the Mediterranean for a short while. Traveling made me understand I didn’t need to be in one place. Here I am, eight years later, with no real permanent residence.” When we chat, she’s savoring the remainder of her summer in sunny Santorini – an island that will always have a dear place in her heart.
Pictured above: Margo Anton
Making the switch to a nomadic lifestyle also meant packing light and perfecting her craft in a smaller size. Anton incorporates some aspects typical of micro mosaics, such as the fine details associated with filati and a putty-like adhesive, and she’s innovated her signature “shag rug” method. It comprises both Italian and Mexican smalti, featuring a unique laying style that she learned to master with time. She accepts commissions and clients can also browse a selection of vibrant pieces on her website that are made from materials including filati, smalti, 24k gold leaf glass tile and sterling silver. Some works are derived solely from a certain mood, enriched by all the scenic destinations she’s visited. Take, for instance, a pair of earrings Anton recently created, inspired by Santorini’s gorgeous sunsets.
Pictured above: Jewelry by Margo Anton
In November, she’s unveiling a new collection for UrbanSparkle, an exhibition hosted by UrbanGlass to coincide with NYC Jewelry Week. Flaunting shades of brilliant blue, her series will be based on the mystical wonders of the sea, for which her appreciation has grown tenfold during her travels. In February and March, Anton is also headed to Australia to teach a few workshops, followed by two in Santorini in June and September 2023. Whatever comes next, she’s happy to keep sharing her enthusiasm and connect with other mosaic aficionados around the globe. “I view my work as wearable art,” Anton says. “I put parts of myself into every piece I make, so it’s really wonderful knowing I’m creating something that’s going to hold meaning and be important to somebody.”
Some top tips from Margo Anton about creating micro mosaic jewelry:
- Slow and steady wins the race with cutting. Your pieces will fit together so much better if the pieces have straight sides, that is if the sides are perpendicular to the top and bottom of the tessera. The best way to accomplish this is to slow down when cutting and make sure that your piece is entering the jaws of the cutter perpendicularly with respect to the wheels rather than on a slant.
- Bent-angled tweezers, sometimes called visibility tweezers, are your best friend. Look for ones with a 90-degree bend rather than just a slight bend. These tweezers allow you to look straight down in between the pincers so you can really see exactly where your piece is going. The other great thing about them is you can rest the heel of your palm on the table while using them, which gives you maximum stability and accuracy.
- Keep it simple. It’s easy to get excited at first with jewelry and just sort of throw random small pieces into the base or try to over design your piece. The best jewelry pieces created in my classes are when people focus on the cutting and setting and keep the design super simple. It’s okay to learn to walk before you learn to run.
Corinna Butler, a jewelry maker originally from the United States, also executes her artistic practice on a smaller scale. Creatively influenced by her mother, an Italian-born glass artist, the pair decided to open a studio together in Tuscany’s Comune di Campiglia Marittima when Butler was fresh out of college in 1997. Nine years later, she branched out on her own and moved to Volterra, a quaint town just south of Florence, where she lives today and runs a thriving glass shop Vitrium Volterra. “When I chose to move away from my mom’s studio, which is on the coast, I researched the different towns and chose wisely because it’s a community that has a lot of artisans,” Butler says. “It’s nice that I’m the only glass maker, but I don’t necessarily need to be, either, because we’re all so diverse.”
Above: Some of Corinna Butler’s glass jewelry
With the switch in location, Butler also began to shift away from what her mother specialized in and develop her own take on the ancient art form. Instead of purely decorative or abstract representations, she veered toward glass jewelry, hanging lamps, ashtrays, and other visually appealing items her clients could ultimately use. “Functional art is a successful business because even beyond a sculpture or a wall piece, people want something practical,” Butler says. “Whether it’s jewelry, a mosaic mirror, or a lighting fixture, all my pieces are for day-to-day life.” Wielding her lampworking torch, she operates primarily with glass she sources from Murano, and, occasionally, small blown beads. Though it’s not an exact replica of micro mosaic, some of her creations showcase a comparable aesthetic thanks to her intricate implementation of fused glass.
Above: Mirrors by Corinna Butler
Living in Italy remains a constant source of inspiration for Butler, whether the rolling hills of Tuscany or the thought-provoking art she’s encountered at the Venice Biennale. In 2020, after months cooped up in her studio, unable to access her shop due to strict pandemic guidelines, she felt an even stronger connection to nature and longed to go outside. She eventually channeled these feelings into her glassmaking process, forging elegant earrings in emerald green or elaborate lamps in the shape of blooming blue flowers. Last May, she released a collection of bright yellow jewelry in honor of World Bee Day. No two items are identical, even after all this time, but Butler doesn’t mind recreating something similar. Loyal clients still request designs from years ago, many of which the artist had since forgotten herself.
Above: Some of Corinna Butler’s glass jewelry
Teaching workshops is another aspiration of hers, so Butler hopes to renovate her studio to accommodate additional guests and host classes soon. Anything that gives her an extension to enjoy doing what she loves is worth the extra effort, after all. “I don’t think I would be happy if I did anything else. I adore making something visually distinct and coming up with my own unique way to use materials,’ she says. “I even have a lot of people who travel all the way from Venice just to buy things from me, which I find to be a big compliment since there are so many talented glassmakers.” Whether through inventive techniques or aesthetic inspiration, contemporary jewelry makers are doing an impressive job of reviving the treasured tradition of micro mosaic art. Each work boasts a distinctive flair, and these stylish conversation starters are sure to turn heads while being cherished for decades to come. Of course, this also applies to the supply of savvy artisans who keep the original custom of micro mosaic alive throughout Italy and beyond, with religious and secular souvenirs alike. If anything, the divergence in methodology shows how truly multi-faceted mosaic is as a medium, inviting anyone who’s patient enough to delve into a magnificent past – and help shape what promises to be a dazzling future.