The term “micro mosaic” (also spelled “micromosaic” and “micro-mosaic”) was coined by wealthy 20th-century collector Sir Arthur Gilbert in reference to Roman mosaics composed of little glass bricks called tesserae. Packed with 1,500 to 5,000 pieces per square inch, this type of miniature mosaic was sold as fine jewelry to Victorian ladies in the early and mid-19th century, when the tourism trade blossomed in Rome. Today, two other types of jewelry—Florentine "pietra dura" and Venetian mosaic—also fall under the umbrella of micro mosaics from the Victorian era.

Most commonly found as brooches and pendants, Roman micro mosaics were also sold in large parures, demi parures, and as individual bracelets, necklaces, and pairs of earrings. Cemented to a glass, stone, or metal background and framed, the glass tesserae were originally so small, these brooches appeared to have been painted or enameled, until they were examined under a microscope.

The imagery on micro mosaics, as well as cameos, reflected the renewed interest in antiquities and all things from the Classic period. Victorians on holiday in Rome could take home an image of the Colosseum, the ancient ruins of Pompeii, or the beautiful scenery they had just experienced. In this way, Roman brooches and pins served as a combination of modern-day souvenir postcards and T-shirts, a wearable image from the trip. Other popular motifs included miniature versions of ancient architectural mosaics like Pliny’s doves in Capitoline, ancient wall paintings like those found at Herculean, King Charles spaniels, and mythological and religious figures.

Unlike Roman micro mosaics, pietra dura—literally “hard stone,” it is also called “pietre dure” or Florentine intarsia—is not made of square or rectilinear tessarae but from thin bits of stone carved into specific shapes fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. These pictures of flowers, birds, butterflies, or other insects were generally set into black marble and framed with metal. Artisans would use stone like malachite, carnelian, and quartz, which mimicked the natural webbing and color gradations of delicate wings and petals, to create stunning, realistic illusions.

Around 1860, the esteemed glass artisans of Murano developed their own style of micro mosaic jewelry, employing small bits of colored glass and multi-colored glass rods. These pieces have a distinct look that makes them easy to distinguish from the other two styles.

Architectural mosaics experienced their first revival in the 1500s, spurred by archaeological digs that revealed the breathtaking mosaics of ancient Rome. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de Medici, established the Grand Ducal workshop in Florence for the study of hardstone mosaic technique. Artisans who studied in Florence took their pietra dura skills all over Italy. Craftsmen in Prague and St. Petersburg attempted to re-create it.

The Florentine artisans used the natural color variations and inclusions in the minerals they worked with to turn their mosaics into stone paintings. Their techniques, along with...

Micro mosaic jewelry has its roots at the Vatican, which had its own secret formula for making glass-like enamel tesserae for hundreds of years. Not long after St. Peter’s Basilica was erected in around 1600, damp clouds began to form inside the vast structure, ruining altar paintings made by some of the most famous artists of the day. Seeking a more durable material, Vatican artists noticed that architectural mosaics of ancient Rome had retained their color. They started look for ways to adapt mosaic techniques for copying paintings, which required developing thousands of hues of tesserae, also known as “smalti,” in a non-reflective material to give the appearance of a painted surface.

Eventually, they came up with 28,000 tesserae colors needed to accurately replicate most of the basilica paintings. By 1770, nearly all of them had been successfully copied in mosaic. Even now, tourists visiting St. Peter’s are often unaware the artworks they’re viewing are mosaic and not painted. In the mid-1770s, a few of these artists applied their skills to miniature mosaic art using teeny tiny tessarae, creating the first of what we know of as “micro mosaic.”

At first, the tessarae were rectilinear or square, but after a while, each piece could be individually shaped to resemble brush strokes. In the early 1800s, commercial mosaic studios opened in Rome, offering the rapidly growing tourist market micro-mosaic mementos of ancient Roman ruins. In Florence, artisans sold pietra dura jewelry, some of it reconstructed from antique fine furniture. In the early days, your average European traveler could only afford micro mosaics set into pill boxes and paperweights, whereas elaborate pictures, tabletops, and jewelry were made for aristocrats.

Perhaps the most important designer of micro mosiac jewelry was the Italian shop Castellani, founded in 1814 and run by artisan Fortunato Pio Castellani and craftsman and Dante scholar Michelangelo Caetani. Much of their work, including their cameo and micro mosaic pieces, was inspired by recent archaeological digs in ancient Roman and Egypt. Castellani’s unusually fine micro mosaic work was set in gold frames and adorned with Etruscan filigree and granulation. Often, the shop would incorporate Latin sayings in its mosaics, using Roman capitals surrounded by geometric designs.

English artisans also tried their hand at Florentine pietra dura, led by the sixth duke of Devonshire. Craftsmen based in Derbyshire cottages would set feldspar from recently discovered British mines within black Derbyshire marble to make cross- or oval-shaped brooches and pendants adorned with floral or insect motifs. These were popular with local tourists, including a young Princess Victoria, who bought such a piece when she traveled there in 1826.

The Victorian tourist trade, which brought great success to Italian micro mosaic jewelers, also brought about the downfall of the form. While micro mosaic jewelry clearly sold well, it was rarely mentioned in the jewelry design reports of the time. This indicates that tourists did not fully appreciate the level of workmanship that went into these pieces, and didn’t consider them art in the same way as, say, Egyptian revivalist or Japanese-style pieces. In the mid-1800s, artisans selling to tourists started to look for ways to save time and make their popular brooches more affordable, so the Roman tessarae got larger and larger, until they were visible to the naked eye and crudely set.

Around the same time, pietra dura craftsman cut corners by taking apart necklaces made earlier in the century and reconstructing them into brooches. Soon, Florentine artisans abandoned the more subtle stones of the past, and went for brightly colored and immediately striking materials like coral, turquoise, mother of pearl, and colored glass. These late-century brooches lacked the depth and realism of earlier jewelry. That’s why the delicacy and realism of a micro mosaic image can be used to date a piece and determine its value. Today, Roman micro mosaics are still made for tourists visiting Italy, but the tessarae are large and the workmanship is shoddy.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

All About Jewels Dictionary

All About Jewels Dictionary

This incredible reference dictionary on jewelry, from Enchantedlearning.com, is both beautiful and comprehensive. S… [read review or visit site]

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Jewelry collectors, feast your eyes on this internet gem! It's a goldmine of jewelry information featuring all styl… [read review or visit site]

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

With its vast galleries featuring clear images of jewelry and style, this site really covers it all! Divided up by … [read review or visit site]

Jewel History

Jewel History

Since March of 2007, readers of Lori Ettlinger Gross’s JewelHistory blog have been treated to her weekly (sometim… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Victorian Micro Mosaic Micromosaic Bird 2" Brooch PinAntique Vintage Gold Filled Micro Mosaic Brooches Flower Pattern Lot Of 2Antique Coromandel Wood Pietra Dura Book Slide Betjemann’s Patent Parkins GottoAntique 19th Century Grand Tour Micro Mosaic & Sample Veneer Desk Paperweight7 Pc Vintage Micro Mosaic Flower Brooch & Earring Lot Most Signed ItalyElegant Grand Tour Victorian 14k Gold Micro Mosaic Pantheon Brooch Pin C1870 Nr!Vintage Floral Theme Italian Glass Micro Mosaic BroochesVtg Misuri Marco Italian Pietra Dura Landscape Mosaic Inlaid Stone Picture SamVintage Set Of 3 Italian Micro Mosaic Brooches PinsVintage Gold Bronze Tn Signed Italy Micro Mosaic Flower Star Brooch Pin Lot 043Vintage Italy Art Deco Ornate Micro Mosaic Glass Millefiori Flowers Brooch PinAntique Victorian Micro Mosaic Floral Brooch PinVintage Sadeli Anglo Indian Trinket Box Micro Mosaic Marquetry Wooden Antique Victorian Fine Micro Mosaic Brooch Pin Flower Floral Round Italy GreenAntique Vintage Victorian Micro Mosaic Triangular Bar Pin Brooch Old C ClaspVictorian Micro Mosaic Pin In CelluloidBeautiful Vintage Floral Micro-mosaic Brooch Pin No ReserveAntique Wooden Box Amazing Detail, Micro Mosaic, Mother Of Pearl, Tunbridge WareVintage Scatter Brooch Pin Micro Mosaic Flower Millefiori Italy Glass 1419Vintage/antique Micro Mosaic Flower 7-3/4" Italian Bracelet - Rare, No ReserveMade Italy Signed Vintage Brooch Pin Micro Mosaic Flower Bow Bell Dangle 1034Vintage Large Italian Micro Mosaic Floral And Geometric Belt BuckleOne Vintage Italian Micro-mosaic Brooch PinItaly Signed Vintage Brooch Pin Micro Mosaic Flower Figural Spanish Guitar 1493Antique Sterling Silver Goldstone Inlay Micro Mosaic Flower Pendant Braid ChainVintage Micro Mosaic Brooch Pin, Italy, Round, Turquoise Blue, Flowers, FloralVintage 800 Silver Italy Micro Mosaic Flowers Screw Back EarringsVintage Pietra Dura Stone And Leather Wooden Box With ButterfliesVintage Micro Mosaic BroochVintage Signed Italy Micro Mosaic Millefiori Art Glass Heart Shape Link BraceletVintage Estate Costume Gold Tone Micro Mosaic Clip On Earrings Set NrVintage Authentic Smooth Surface Square Mini Micromosaic Floral Brooch BrassBeautiful Solid 14k Yellow Gold / Pietra Dura Ladies Brooch PinAntique Victorian Italian Signed Micromosaic Bracelet Multicolor Glass TesseraeVintage Micro Mosaic Micromosaic Glass Turtle Pin Brooch Made In ItalyOld French Gilt Silver Micromosaic Leaf Hollow Bracelet Hallmarked 800Vintage Micro Mosaic Brooch Pin, Made In Italy, Round, Red Border Flowers, DaisyAntique Micro Mosaic Pin Rare Antq Micro Mosaic Italian Brooch/earrings Set/orig Box/dante CardiniVintage Italian Micro Mosaic Pin Brooch Oval Shape Turquoise Mosaics Estate GoldVintage Micromosaic Floral Pill Box Aqua Teal Blue Micro Mosaic OvalVintage Brooch Pin Micro Mosaic Flower Italy Glass Gold Tone Millefiori 1494Antique Italian Italy Floral Micromosaic Patch Snuff Trinket BoxAntique Italian Micro Mosaic Floral Lapel Pin Brooch Brass 1900 Vintage RetroOld Antique Vtg Jewelry Brooch Micro Mosaic Italy C Clasp Flower Gold? Ornate NrAntique Victorian Vintage Micro Mosaic Bracelet 19th Cent *damage 1627Vintage Micro Mosaic Brooch Pin, Italy, C Clasp, Elevated Flowers, Turquoise BluAntique Victorian Micro Mosaic Floral Brooch Antique Pietra Dura Black White & Green Flower Gold Plated Pin BroochVintage Pair Of Heart Shaped Micro-mosaic Brooches,italyVintage Large Flower Micro Mosaic Italy Pendant W/26" Circle Silvertone Chain Vintage Micromosaic Flower EarringsVintage Earrings Micro Mosaic Flower Silver Tone Filigree Italy Millefiori 1309Vintage Micro Mosaic Floral Oval PinVintage Italian Micro Mosaic Goldtone Pendant Necklace Marked ItalyVintage Antique Micro Mosaic Jewelry Collection Micro Mosaic Brooch Earrings BoxGorgeous Vintage Estate Gold Tone Micro Mosaic Floral Cello Guitar Brooch!! 931sVintage Silver Tone Micro Mosaic Heart Pin Brooch ItalyVintage Italian Micro Mosaic Flower Forget Me Not Brooch Italy Free Shipping!Mens Vintage Mid Century Psychadelic Micro Mosaic Optical Illusion Cufflinks