The neighborhood of San Frediano once resounded with the hammers of leather workers, hat makers and numerous other artisans, but today the soundtrack of its streets is the gabbing of tourists and rumble of their suitcases’ wheels over the cobblestones.
In the search for a true experience in the city, some of those same vacationers have been discovering courses in traditional crafts, like those at the Alchimia Contemporary Jewelry School, on a back street in San Frediano. Here, the hammer clangs carry on — the classroom’s aural backdrop as students learn the art of goldsmithing, a Florentine forté since the Renaissance.
On a Monday morning in September, a couple of new students in the school’s two-week intensive class set themselves up for their first day: a tackle-box of hand tools at their feet and desk lamps illuminating the wooden benches where they would drill, saw, forge and solder metal into jewelry.
The school, established in 1998, offers bachelor’s and master’s programs, but also welcomes everyone from absolute beginners to seasoned experts for these short courses. In 10 days of six-hour class sessions, most students make a ring, a necklace and a project of their choice, honing the required goldsmithing skills along the way.
“Today, creative jewelry is often poorly crafted, but, first and foremost, we believe the basic techniques have to be strong,” Daniela Boieri, a class instructor and jewelry artist, said as she inspected student projects.
The sun shone into the classroom, a workshop lined with racks of mallets, anvils, polishing wheels, rolling mills and other tools, with rows of jewelry benches flanked by flex-shaft drills and butane torches. Wall-mounted vitrines displayed examples of projects, from an Irish claddagh ring with a jointed shank to a multitude of intricate chain links.
“I wanted to use a torch,” said Shiloh Helberg, a lifeguard from Canada on her first trip to Europe, who added that she had been thunderstruck by Florence and its “famous paintings in the flesh, brushstrokes and all.”
It was also Ms. Helberg’s first experience making jewelry, but she had arrived with sketches of puzzle shapes that she planned to turn into a link necklace — once she had learned to use a handsaw on metal. “The more gentle you are, the more precise you are,” Ms. Boieri told her, illustrating the proper grip.
Joke Meukens, a software user experience designer from Antwerp, Belgium, who makes jewelry in her off hours, presented an Instagram post of a pair of teardrop earrings she hoped to recreate. “Or,” she suggested, “I could have them 3-D printed and cast.”
Ms. Boieri gently noted, “But that’s not jewelry making, amore mio.” Point taken, Ms. Meukens began annealing a sheet of brass with one of the torches.
“Schools today are either about art or about technical skills, but we’re trying to foster the idea of the workshop fueled by both,” said Lucia Massei, who founded Alchimia with Doris Maninger and serves as its director. Some of contemporary jewelry’s most distinguished artists have taught at Alchimia, including Manfred Bischoff, Giampaolo Babetto and Lucy Sarneel; David Clarke and Evert Nijland lead courses today.
Classes, including supplies and the use of tools, are 1,900 euros (about $2,035) for a two-week session, and were created for visitors to the city. So many wanted to do more than sightsee, Ms. Massei said — “they wanted to learn to use their hands.”
While Florence’s prowess in gold and metal working was once the envy of Europe, modern jewelry retailers have almost entirely supplanted the goldsmith workshops on the tourist-thronged Ponte Vecchio, and jewelry makers such as the technique traditionalist Nerdi Orafi and the Alchimia graduates Giselle Effting and Francesco Coda are among just a handful still creating jewelry in the city.
“Because of mass tourism, Florence has been overtaken by places with cheap things to eat and cheap things to buy,” said Maria Pilar Lebole, who heads the Osservatorio dei Mestieri d’Arte, an organization promoting artisans. Soaring costs and competition from tourist-oriented businesses have forced the closure of many of Florence’s old workshops, she explained.
From June through September, this city of fewer than 400,000 inhabitants had 1.5 million visitors stay at its hotels and vacation rentals, according to the Centro Studi Turistici, a Florentine industry organization.
The total does not include the even more numerous day-trippers touring the city.
“Pseudo-craft” is how Ms. Lebole describes the merchandise bought by most visitors: inexpensive replicas of Florentine leather bags, decorative papers and other items that have been mass-produced in foreign factories and sold under the guise of handmade local goods.
“We’re doing everything we can to acquaint travelers with authentic craft,” Ms. Lebole said, citing some holdouts of high artisanship like the decorative scagliola stucco inlay of the Bianco Bianchi workshop, the commesso fiorentino technique of inset carved marble at Scarpelli and the classic leather craft practiced by Peroni.
“Education has also become a very important direction for the workshops to survive,” Ms. Lebole said. Along with Alchimia, there are several other artisan courses offered in the city, including the Schola Academy’s multimonth courses in shoemaking, millinery and ceramics, and shorter seminars at Il Bisonte’s traditional printmaking studio, the Scuola del Cuoio’s leather working atelier and Fondazione Lisio’s weaving workshop.
As an American resident of Florence and as a former jewelry designer and maker, I have long been curious about the idea of engaging your hands and mind as a way to connect with the city. The week after my first visit to Alchimia, I tied on one of the school’s black aprons and sat down at a bench so that Ms. Boieri, now with five students and one journalist in the class, could give me step-by-step instructions for the square-wire bracelet I hoped to produce.
Alchimia means “alchemy” in Italian, and it was clear that in a week here, students had undergone their own transmutation. Ms. Helberg, sitting to my left, had progressed from a novice to someone proficient in handling a saw and soldering; she was confidently fusing the final links of her puzzle necklace.
On my right was Ms. Meukens, wearing the sinuous teardrop earrings she had completed. She drew original designs based on concept words — asymmetric, geometric — that she devised at the behest of the instructor beforehand.
“I’ve been too digital. It’s good to be more manual.” she said. “I don’t look at things the same way anymore.”
Alchimia provides students with brass and copper to work with, but I had brought an outmoded gold bracelet from one of my grandmothers that needed a new purpose.
With a torch, I melted it into a roiling sun-colored bubble of liquid metal, then poured that into an ingot mold to form a caterpillar of gold that I reshaped, cranking it by hand through a rolling mill and yanking it through the square holes of a wire plate.
Eventually the caterpillar became a foot-long piece of square gold wire as slender and springy as a daisy stem. “Metal is magic,” Ms. Boieri said. “And you can morph it with your hands if you learn its techniques.”
A decade had passed since I’d last taken a mallet to metal, but I hammered my grandmother’s refashioned gold into its final bracelet shape, and did my part to bring back the reverberating clangs of the San Frediano neighborhood — the old artisan spirit of Florence alive in my head.