THE SECRETIVE JEWELLER. Attilio Codognato served his apprenticeship in his father’s, grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s profession and is the current head of the Casa Codognato. Codognato jewellers has been a Venice landmark for over a century. He remains faithful to his ancestors’ legacy, and like them attracts a celebrity clientele.
Attilio, you studied in Milan, which is where you were born. Then around the age of 18 or 19, you decided to go to Venice.
Yes, and I’ve been working as a jeweller since I was young.
How does one work as a jeweller?
You purloin, in the sense that you pay attention to what’s around you and then transform that into something. It was interesting for me because I learned from very good masters, my father and my grandfather.
Every jeweller is specialised in something. What was the Codognato Jewellery shop like when you showed up at age nineteen?
The antique, the tradition, always served as inspiration, and that is still true today. The idea of a job done well, with love and an eye to Venice, which is the main source of inspiration. I made skulls and that has been a global success.
What gave you that idea?
Do people want to have a jewellery piece that is a skull? That’s a bit strange…
You’d have to ask them. It is strange, but it’s been incredibly popular. They still ask for it now. It’s like a motif, whether for a ring or a brooch or something else.
“The most beautiful stones are ever more valuable”
Attilio Codognato, since you started, you’ve been the jeweller in Venice, a legendary stop.
I’d like to tell you an anecdote. Many years ago, I didn’t understand why they came to me asking for a specific object, a pin with five emeralds, and it’s because I was mentioned in Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees and everybody wanted a memento.
You used to make a famous snake bracelet. Do you still make that?
Yes. It’s made in Venice, a snake-shaped bracelet with a head made of precious stones.
Do the clients choose the stones?
No, I choose the stones. I decide.
Choosing the stones is an important process. How did you learn?
I learned, in the beginning, mostly in London at Hatton Garden and then from other jewellers because I was there as a guest.
Has today’s market for precious stones changed?
The most beautiful stones are ever more valuable, while mediocre ones are worth less. I try not to use stones that are mediocre.
They say that the ruby is one of the most precious stones. Is that true?
Yes and no. Because a gorgeous sapphire can beat out an average ruby. Three stones are in competition with one another: emeralds, rubies, and sapphires.
Which one wins?
Which is the stone par excellence?
Not the diamond?
Yes, in its various incarnations, and because it comes in different forms, from antique to modern cuts.
What is the most precious diamond?
It doesn’t exist. There is always one that is more beautiful.
Where do the rubies come from?
From India. Now there is a big trade show for modern jewellery in Vicenza, and I have no interests there. But it’s good, educational.
Have you ever done trade shows?
No, though everyone would like me to. But I want to be on my own turf.
Have you ever been tricked by a fake stone?
No. I am always very careful, and in London where I did my schooling they taught us how to see stones in all of their various incarnations. London is still the most important place to learn about stones.
Yes, that’s how I defend myself. They speak another language. It’s different but equally interesting. They also have high-level, aristocratic clients. The world behind the business is fun.
But your jewels are one-off pieces?
Yes, they bear my signature and each is a one-off piece. I work better as a lone artisan.
Jewels are the result of craftsmanship. Are yours made in Venice?
Yes, though some are made elsewhere because there are specific artisans for specific things.
I’d imagine you have had many famous clients over the years, and probably more foreigners than Venetians?
Yes, international clients.
Are there any clients you are particularly close with or that you remember more than others?
I can’t speak about my clients. It’s a professional secret.
Even those who are no longer with us?
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for example. They were in Venice and came to me every evening. Another important person was Luchino Visconti. When he filmed Death in Venice he came to me every evening so he could give Ms. Mangano a gift every day.
What did he buy her?
The most beautiful of everything. He would say, “I want the most beautiful piece,” and I would say, “You bought it yesterday”. It was playful repartee.
Did Visconti know about jewellery?
He was an aficionado. Jewels were a pleasure, a love, a tradition.
Did the Duke and Duchess of Windsor also love jewellery?
Yes. They were difficult people, already in the fashion world. They invented their own fashion, for him and for her.
What about famous American actors and writers?
I can’t say. It’s a professional secret.
But you spoke about Visconti and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor…
Well, you got it out of me [laughs].
“I’m very selective about my clientele”
Attilio Codognato, were you also the jewellers to the Italian royal family?
Yes. The Duke of Aosta was my client, for example. I was lucky enough to experience that lost, fantastic world. These things no longer exist.
What types of clients do you have nowadays?
More “hit and run”. They come and want to make a deal. First and foremost, I make the deal, and then I let you deal. I am the gatekeeper between you and the things. Clients need to be indoctrinated, but it is different now.
Did you have loyal clients? For example, clients who would call from New York or London and say they were coming to see something?
Yes, I had those as well. I prefer clients to come to me because I have a wide array of things they can see here.
Are there any jewellers you were or still are particularly friendly with?
Yes. One was Wartski, who is still in London, and also Kenneth Snowman, who was the queen’s jeweller. Kenneth did the Fabergé collection for the British royals. He was also a painter. He was an extraordinary man, and I was lucky enough to see him every summer. He would go to Cipriani’s and then to me. It was a magnificent experience.
Have you ever sold anything to the British royal family?
Yes, through him.
Fabergé was a great jeweller. Didn’t you have a relationship with Vieille Russie, the famous jeweller in New York with many Fabergé items?
Yes, they were good contacts.
In the jewellery world, is there a system of favours?
Absolutely. It’s a small yet respectable “mafia”.
Venice has surely changed a lot over the years?
It has changed for everyone. It is hard to even imagine it as the place where big parties were held, the big parties on the Grand Canal in the nineteen-fifties. You can no longer do that today.
Did you sell a lot during those big parties?
Yes, quite a lot. They would make appointments with me. That was the fun part of my work.
Were you friends with these clients? Did you see them outside of work?
I don’t know how to respond to that exactly. There was a connection. There was an exchange that was wonderful for the profession. It wasn’t just selling to someone but sharing something sweet, nice, and interesting with the other person.
Have you ever bought back any of your jewels?
I would do so happily, but nobody sells them to me and I have never resold my pieces.
Have you ever found them at auctions?
I’m not very interested in auctions. I prefer having direct contacts like, for example, with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. There was a famous sugar bowl that they would always buy to give as gifts at weddings and for other occasions.
The same sugar bowl?
Yes. I remember they always wanted the same one, but in gold not silver. So I would take it down to the station because they were always at the Venice station. It may be a silly anecdote for others who didn’t experience it, but it’s funny to me.
Have you ever had clients who didn’t pay or had issues with paying?
No. You have to go looking for those types of problems. I’m very selective about my clientele.
Do you still have relationships with the people with money who come to you?
Venetians come to you as well. Have you ever bought jewels from Venetian families?
Over the years, yes, but it’s not easy now. I bought things that had meaning to me and kept them for my own small collection. I like rings or bracelets shaped like snakes when they are especially beautiful.
Bulgari had a large collection of boxes. You don’t have your own collections?
No. I prefer to collect clients, which is more fun.
Do you have generations of clients that come to you – children of former clients?
Are there still some young people who love jewels?
No, there are fewer. But today’s world is interesting because they are more selective, more curious.
The exterior of Codognato jewellers in Venice.
Inside Codognato jewellers in Venice.
An example of Codognato jewellery
An example of Codognato jewellery
An example of Codognato jewellery
An example of Codognato jewellery
“I was the best collector so it wasn’t worth it to buy things for others.”
Attlio Codognato, you’ve also been very interested in art since you were young.
Yes. I had an uncle, Enrico Hintermann, who was a big twentieth-century collector, but his son sold everything off because he wasn’t interested in it. So, the collection is no more.
Do you remember the first thing you ever bought?
Not the first thing I bought, but what I remember was being reprimanded. It was after the war in Milan, and I was playing football outside a storefront. I broke out the glass window with the ball, and there was this wonderful De Chirico. The collector was Vittorio Emanuele Barbaroux, and when I broke the window, he came out and pulled me inside by my ear, making me look at the entire collection. That is perhaps where my love of art began.
Did your family and father already have a collection?
No. It was an automatic thing. Venice is extraordinary because the sharpest, most intelligent people from the world of art came through here. There’s the Biennial… and then the relationship with Ileana Sonnabend, Castelli’s wife. I spent a lifetime with Ileana, and my son Mario was practically born in the Sonnabend home. She had me visit her in New York at the end of the nineteen-fifties, and we’ve been together ever since.
What did you begin to buy?
Did Warhol also like jewellery?
Yes, he collected jewellery. He collected everything but especially jewellery. He only came to Venice a few times. I once had a party for Warhol with 100 people, in the house I had before this one. We were all sitting there and, suddenly, there was an earthquake. Warhol fell onto his back. But he was happy about that time in Venice, so much so that then we saw each other many times in New York. I had an excellent relationship with him. He didn’t speak a lot, but he communicated quite a bit when he felt like it.
Have you collected many Warhol pieces?
How did that come about?
When I lived in Milan, there was a gallery owned by Arturo Schwarz, dearly departed and truly irreplaceable. He introduced me to Duchamp and was a great influence.
You have quite an important Duchamp collection, don’t you?
I don’t know how important it is. All his most important work is at the museum in Philadelphia. I bought a bit of what could still be found in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies. I don’t believe there are copies for sale now. But Schwarz was the gem and in addition to Duchamp, he had me buy Picabia, Dalí, the surrealist world.
Did you meet Dalí?
Yes, I met him as a client. He was a very intelligent, brilliant man.
Did he like jewellery?
He liked jewels and he also designed them. I published a book called Antologia Grafica del Surrealismo (1975), and Dalí was missing from that. He was a key player and shouldn’t be left out from a surrealist anthology, so he told me to come meet him at the Le Meurice in Paris, to bring him $30,000, and he’d give me something to do my work. Meeting him was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After a month I went there with the money, and I asked what he had for me. He said he had a watch and because I was a jeweller, a goldsmith, his “contribution” would be a gem to me. I made him a magnificent jewel that was then lost. An amazing surrealist jewel, with horses. Something loud, curious.
How do you work as a jeweller? How do you conceive things: by drawing or explaining?
I have people who are excellent at drawing. I prefer to explain. Each person has a specific task: inlay, enamel, they are all secret things. My secrets.
Are there still good craftspeople?
Are today’s goldsmiths able to reproduce certain jewels or techniques that may have been lost forever?
Anything can be reproduced, but it’s always a reproduction.
Is there still that artisanal skill?
Yes. We need to believe in this. In Italy and throughout the world.
Has the way jewellery is made changed?
It aims to be the same.
Are today’s goldsmiths as good as those of the past?
I don’t know. There are some very good ones, from father to son.
Did you raise your children to follow in your footsteps?
It’s a calling. My son Mario likes the arts. Whether it is this or that, it’s always the world of art.
Your son inherited your passion for the arts?
Yes. When I broke out that glass window with the football, I was inspired, and I’m happy about that. Having an art gallery didn’t interest me. I was the best collector so it wasn’t worth it to buy things for others. Although I’ve always made trades, obviously.
Your son is a museum curator. Do you follow what he does?
The good thing about him is he tells me about the interesting things he does.
The difference is that he’s not a merchant.
Nobody speaks ill of my son. Anyone who speaks ill of my son will be in trouble with me! He’s very good.
You have quite a few Maurizio Cattelan pieces in your home. Did you meet him because he was here in Venice?
I find him unique and interesting.
After Duchamp, there were the surrealists and Pop Art. What came after that?
Cattelan. Paolini is another artist I like a lot. The problem isn’t getting to know the artists, which sometimes don’t match the work of the artist. It’s more interesting to have the object.
How did you find the pieces? Through Sonnabend, Schwarz…?
Castelli as well. He was a curious, cold, intelligent person. Because we were very good friends I have this wonderful photo he gave me of when Mitterand awarded him the Legion of Honour.
What did Castelli like to talk about?
His life. He really loved women. That was an interesting topic for him.
Yes, but they are incidental. I was interested at the time, now less so.
Starting with De Chirico all the way to Cattelan, will you continue to add to your collection?
Now I like to see my things and look at a sort of overview of everything I’ve collected. Now I am an old man so that is what gives me pleasure.
You live in an old Venetian palazzo and mix contemporary works with antique furnishings, mainly in Empire style. Did you inherit these things from your family or did you choose to put them together like this?
Both. I inherited things, but I combined them to suit my tastes. I think neoclassical and contemporary go well together. You can’t explain taste. It’s a sensation. I really like Empire style.
In your life there’s the world of art, your collection, and your work as a jeweller. Are these areas kept separate?
There’s a link there, a view of everything together that is exciting.
You spoke of Caravaggio, but I don’t see any Caravaggio-like works. Do you not like them?
I really like to see them in museums, but I choose things that look towards the future, towards what’s to come.
But in your work, you’ve taken inspiration from old paintings or surrealism.
Yes, it’s a sort of eclecticism.
What about contemporary jewellery?
I don’t like those as well. It seems like a paradox. Contemporary jewellery is made of different materials and different desires, not of gold. There are many more clients, and you have to race to satisfy them. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are no longer around.
Laurence Graff, a diamond specialist, has stores all over the world because people want his jewels for weddings or other special occasions.
That’s a tradition that still exists. I prefer eccentric objects, but Graff is very good.
With all the jewels that you’ve made and sold, have you done a book?
There are two interesting little books. One published by Assouline and the other written by Maurice Rheims entitled Miroir de nos passions, in which, instead of putting the jewels, he photographed the clients. Fun but dangerous.
Today, perhaps people wear jewellery less. They own jewels but don’t wear them. Do you think that now it’s more about an investment than in the past?
Antique jewels are an investment. When they are authentic, they have a fantastic story behind them. And I like that. I also like Empire style when it comes to jewellery.
Have you ever sold pieces to museums?
Yes, but I can’t say which.
Do you like working with museums?
I really do. That would be my life’s dream: only museums.
Otherwise, jewels will disappear?
Yes, like everything.
Venice is selling its own death.
Are you happy that Venice is trying to establish itself as a “city of art,” with all of the foundations that are being created, as well as the Biennial and the other museums?
Yes, I see this blossoming of certain situations as a positive.
Will your jewellery remain something important?
Do you have apprentices or young people who have come to learn from you?
Those who want to can come see, but it’s not a school.
Do you think many young people want to do this work?
I don’t know the future. I don’t know.
All images courtesy and © Attilio Codognato.
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