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The Gold Standard

Committed to craftsmanship, the Buccellati family refines the art of jewelry making.

Luca, Andrea, Rosie, Gianmaria, Maria Cristina and Gino Buccellati

Preparation for rhodium-plating

Engraving is an art at Buccellati

The sketch of a pendant earring and the first steps of handcrafting the piece

This gorgeous brooch, composed of baroque pearls, gold and diamonds, is a nod to the Chinese Zodiac.

Diamond and gold rings from Trina Eternelles Collection, $12,000-$25,000

A man with a gray mustache sits next to his black-haired son in a Milan studio, their heads bent over worn wooden worktables. Wearing white lab coats, they use silent tools and Renaissance-era techniques to spin discs of gold into earrings and brooches as delicate as lace—one tiny, octagon-shaped puncture at a time.

The goldsmiths are among the 200 craftspeople who make jewelry for Buccellati, the Italian company founded by Mario Buccellati in 1919. Renowned for unusual stones and its collection of museumworthy table silver, Buccellati is famous above all for gold that does something more than shine.

Everyone who knows luxury knows Buccellati and its Renaissance-, Neoclassical- and Rococo-inspired aesthetic. In the U.S., there are boutiques in New York, L.A. and Aspen, and a long search for the right piece of Chicago real estate has culminated with a lease on a two-story space in the former Esquire Theater building. The 1,600-square-foot Oak Street store—which heralds an age of a more modern boutique design for Buccellati—opens this summer.

Sleek Midwestern market entry aside, tradition reigns within the house of Buccellati. Gianmaria Buccellati, one of five sons of Mario, is the 84-year-old patriarch who still produces nearly 3,000 sketches of jewelry and silver annually. In a plush office with classical music wafting through the air, Gianmaria designs behind a desk a mile wide, occasionally glancing at the security monitors that track those who enter and leave the jewel-filled atelier.

“What I learned from my father can be explained in one word: quality,” says Gianmaria, who meets with gem-setters, engravers and goldsmiths every Friday to discuss their progress on, say, a single necklace or bracelet—each of which can take weeks or months to complete. “They are very young when they first come to me,” he says. “I teach people in connection with their capacity. Some are better with geometric designs, some with flowers and leaves.”

Gianmaria hopes to ensure Buccellati’s old-world practices endure. He will retire this month after 70 years on the job, and that, combined with a recent, $100 million investment by Milan-based private equity firm Clessidra SGR, means new executives will be helping to guide the brand forward. Gianmaria will become honorary president, passing the mantle to his son, Andrea Buccellati, who assumes direction of the company after a lifetime of tutelage at his father’s knee.

The last such transition did not go smoothly. When Mario Buccellati died in 1965, the business went to four of his sons (the fifth one, Giorgio, is an archeologist and university professor in the U.S.). Tensions between brothers Gianmaria, Lorenzo, Federico and Luca led to a split, and they began operating stores under different names in Milan, Florence, Rome and New York. With so many Buccellatis making jewelry, customer confusion ran rampant. For the most part, the brothers did not speak for 40 years.

This time, the younger Buccellatis seem committed to unity—and they’re an exceptionally attractive, hardworking bunch. Maria Cristina Buccellati is Gianmaria’s glamorous, globetrotting daughter and the company’s head of branding and image. Incoming President Andrea is her brother, and another sibling, Gino, manages the company’s silver factory in Bologna. A rakishly handsome cousin, Luca, runs the store in Milan, and Andrea’s beautiful 23-year-old daughter, Lucrezia, designs Buccellati’s new Blossoms silver jewelry collection from New York.

Maria Cristina smiles as she recalls how, in 2011, the Mario Buccellati company—owned by Lorenzo since Mario’s death and the subsequent familial fallout—was absorbed by Gianmaria Buccellati. The brand finally became, simply, Buccellati. “We—the new generation—had hoped for it for so long,” she says. “We have no problem working together. We want to.” A reunion between the estranged brothers was arranged, and it was a joy and relief for their children. “We love to cry in this family, and we were all crying when they embraced,” she says. (The late Federico Buccellati’s store continues to operate separately in Rome.)

On the whole, the Buccellatis keep a low profile. They don’t do tabloid photos and they don’t lend out jewelry for red-carpet appearances, preferring to cultivate relationships with clients who appreciate the culture and passion behind their brand. “To the Buccellatis, it is more important to be than to appear,” says Simona Meschi, a personal assistant to the family. “If they go to the opera at La Scala, for instance, they do it without telling anyone. They never show off.”

Dressed for lunch in a belted jacket, slim pants and small Ray-Ban sunglasses, Maria Cristina’s gold Buccellati watch—partially hidden by her sleeve—is the only piece of jewelry she wears. If you spot her on Oak Street when she visits Chicago for the store’s opening party this fall, don’t expect her to sparkle overtly. “Normally I put on a pair of earrings or a necklace, or maybe a watch but then no earrings or necklace,” she says. “If I wear too many things at once, I start to feel like a Christmas tree.”

For all this professed subtlety, Buccellati is still about very expensive, haute couture jewelry—more objets d’art than baubles. Clients have included royalty, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (Italy’s answer to Hemingway), old-money families and celebrities. You can buy a Buccellati necklace for as much as $1.5 million. A $700,000 bracelet was recently shipped to a buyer in Paris, and rings of tullelike gold with engraved edges and sprinkles of diamonds go for $12,000 to $25,000.

One wonders: What is the best way to wear a million-dollar strand of huge baroque pearls nestled in filigreed gold while not looking like a Christmas tree? Maria Cristina’s breezy advice: “Just put it on with a white shirt and jeans. Wear it every day. No one will think it’s real.”