From nature and travel to history and film, Michele della Valle finds inspiration at every turn. As the Geneva-based jewellery designer puts the finishing touches on pieces destined for Sotheby’s April Magnificent Jewels sale, Vivienne Becker discovers how della Valle developed his distinctive style and became one of the most sought-after jewellers in the world.

Della Valle's "Anenome" necklace sold at Sotheby's in 2013 for $150,000. Photography by Laura Camia.

NEW YORK – Whether in his design studio overlooking Lake Geneva, visiting the atelier in Rome or on his boat in the Mediterranean, designer-jeweller Michele della Valle dreams in colour, conjuring up lyrical compositions from a treasure trove of sumptuous gemstones. Rare and precious or unexpected and mysterious, the vibrant grass greens, flaming orange and lilting blues of sea and sky are the colours of jewels for which he has become celebrated among an elite international coterie of collectors and connoisseurs. Still a rarefied name in the world of jewellery, a destination jeweller, della Valle lives and works in Geneva, where he presents ideas and designs to clients in his appointment-only studio. The finished jewel can then be commissioned and meticulously handmade by the sixteen highly skilled craftsmen in della Valle’s atelier in Rome.

At the designer's atelier in Rome, a fanciful floral brooch is near completion. Photography by Laura Camia. 

It all started, he recalls, when he was fourteen, and found himself, by accident one day in a small shop in Rome that sold imitation gemstones. He found them irresistible, bought a handful and turned them into jewels of brass and aluminium that he sold to his parents’ friends. By the late 1970s, his fascination had deepened into a serious passion, and della Valle was travelling regularly to difficult and dangerous locations in Asia in search of intriguing precious stones. He remembers, fondly, his first gem purchase in 1976: a superb ruby, bought in Burma, now Myanmar, which he showed to the legendary gemstone dealer Roger Varenne, who, impressed with the gem, pointed him in the direction of Paolo Bulgari. Della Valle in fact sold the ruby, very successfully, at auction, setting out on his path as a gem dealer. He spent the first years of his career working closely with the Bulgari brothers, immersed, he says, in their mystique. “From Paolo and Gianni Bulgari, I learned the joy of colours, the excitement of mixing semi-precious stones of little value but great charm, with rare and expensive stones. I learned so much from them.”

Before long, he felt the need to express himself through his own creations, and instinctively, over the years, has developed his own distinctive, signature style: strong, forthright, self-confident, but seductively feminine jewels that mix classicism of form and reference with a carefree exuberance, modernity and individuality. “My jewels are cheerful, never dramatic,” della Valle explains. “I never forget that they are meant to bring joy, to beautify the wearer.”

Della Valle at work sketching new designs in the Tuscan countryside. Photography by Laura Camia.

He reinterprets classic jewellery iconography – soft, silky, voluptuous ribbon bows, slithering gem-encrusted serpents, lusciously weighty multi-gem-coloured chains, light feathers and ethereal flowers. Nature remains his greatest influence, although he finds a wealth of inspiration on his travels: a market in Tahiti, for example, where he was captivated by jewels made of fresh flowers, pearls and shells. “Jewels to last for one night only: the ultimate in luxury.” Or India, its colours, sensations, silks and saris, the fruit and vegetable market in Jaipur, that he says leaves him breathless. “In India, inspiration is everywhere, you need only open your eyes and your heart.” He pinpoints other eclectic sources, from pirates and the sea, to Nureyev and the ballet, the American flag, which he feels represents “youthful freedom,” and Hollywood stars Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, or James Dean, who inspired a series of cufflinks and brooches designed as vintage cars.

Michele della Valle’s strongest style signature, however, is his daring experimention with gem colour – bright, strong, vibrant, often in shocking juxtaposition, but always clear, crisp and well-defined. He works with the noblest emeralds, rubies and blue sapphires, but also uses garnets in blood red, grass green or fiery tangerine, sapphires of all shades, rubellites of pulsating pink and a panoply of intriguing specimens. India, he says, introduced him to the full richness of the gem palette, to “the joy, the tastes of colour.” He chooses each stone for its individual beauty and personality; if it speaks to him, charms him, draws him in with a hypnotic fascination, then he buys it; he has no choice, he says. “I’ve always bought unusually coloured stones regardless of their value. No sapphire can match the blue of a hayunite, and a morganite can have the charm of a pink diamond.” 

A pair of della Valle's chalcedony and diamond "Jellyfish" earclips sold at Sotheby's in 2013. Photography by Laura Camia.

A design always starts with the quest for gemstones; all ideas are sparked by the character and colour of a particular stone. “I don’t understand how a jewel can be created without the magic of a trip to India or to the Far East in search of stones. The stones give birth to the design, and not the other way around.” Della Valle creates the initial sketch, and then works closely with his colleague, Elisabetta Marsili, whom he considers the most talented jewellery illustrators in Europe. She makes the final technical drawing, which is then passed to his team of expert artisans and a chef d’atelier in his Rome workshop. They collaborate for days to bring soul and spirit to his jewels, and to perfect proportions, the fluidity of line, suppleness of articulation, the precision of gem-setting, persisting until he sees the exact jewel he has imagined. There is a musicality to the colour, line and rhythm of his designs that comes from della Valle’s personal passion for opera and his own early training as a dramatic tenor. 

This intensely personal connection to the gems and jewels, to music, to his artisans and their craftsmanship, is carried through to his relationship with his clients, a glittering cast of artists, actors, writers, opera and pop singers, many of whom have become close friends. For Michele della Valle, this adds yet more colour to his dream world of gems, the final touch to the joy of jewels. 

Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian, contributing editor for FT’s How to Spend It and author of Assouline’s Impossible Collection of Jewellery

A selection of jewels by Michele della Valle will be offered in the Magnificent Jewels sale on 29 April in New York.