There aren’t instruction manuals written about Florentine hand engraved jewelry. You can’t just read up on it by browsing how-to guides online. The only way to learn this archaic art form is to study at the hand of a master Florentine engraver passing techniques down through the generations.
When I saw a Florentine hand engraving class offered at Flux Metal Arts in September 2012, I didn’t know exactly what I was signing up for. But as soon as I saw a beautiful gold engraved pearl ring made by the teacher, Vincent Wil Hawley, I knew I wanted to learn more. There was a mysterious, exclusive allure to learning such a niche technique that so few modern American jewelers have mastered.
My initial engraving class was an immersive, intensive three-day introduction that barely scratched the surface – no pun intended. It was enough to whet my artistic appetite, and the following January I started taking private lessons from Vince three times a week.
Seeing that I quickly picked up these ancient techniques, Vince convinced me to travel with him to the annual Florentine engraving class he offers in Italy every spring. During that two-week trip in 2014 (and again in 2015), we practiced hand engraving techniques every day from 9 to 5, and even later some days with the help of Vince’s Florentine master, Franco Benevieri.
Working closely with the masters of Florentine hand engraving, in the city where the art form originated, greatly improved my skill and understanding of the tools and techniques behind this classic style that most people know nothing about.
Tools of the trade
Before I could even start engraving, I first had to learn how to use the tools – which are nearly as primitive as the art form itself. Florentine hand engravers have always used simple tools: a steel knife in a wooden handle, a special wax to hold the metal in place, and of course plenty of muscle. Everything about this technique is archaic, so the way it’s been done for thousands of years is the way I still do it today.
The basic engraving tool is called a bulino, which I learned how to make from a piece of wood and a steel knife. You start by sawing off one side of a round wooden handle so it lays flat in your hand. Then you grind down a long high-speed steel blade and hammer it into the handle, secured with a collett to keep the wood from splitting.
Learning to hold the engraver is a skill in itself. The round side of the handle goes against your palm, with the flat edge resting against your ring finger to keep it secure. Then you grip the sides of the knife with your thumb and pointer finger, learning to apply the right amount of pressure to guide the blade across the surface of the metal without pushing so hard that the knife skids around unevenly.
The most common engraver is called an onglette, with an edge shaped like a tear-drop to create simple lines. There are also piato engravers that make beveled edges, and rigatto engravers that create a soft satin-like texture, and so on, the different types of engravers create different facets in the metal for light to reflect off of. What may look like a single engraved line on a finished piece of jewelry, for example, may require four or five runs with different tools – first with the onglette to make a straight line, then with a piato to bevel the edges, then with the onglette again to create an outline around those edges, which can all be done on top of the rigatto engraving. It’s a very layered process, not to mention labor-intensive, which naturally raises the price of hand engraved pieces.
Even after you understand the tools, you still have to build your muscle before you can do any real engraving. You’re basically trying to put a steel knife through metal, which takes a lot of strength. I had to carve straight lines over and over and over on copper until I could make perfectly clean, straight lines. Once you master straight lines, then you advance to curves, and you sit there and engrave curves over and over and over again until you can carve a perfectly arched curve.
You can’t force the knife into the metal, and if I tried to, Vince would say, “Don’t force it. Do what you’re capable of doing right now, and learn how to engrave the right way, even if it’s shallow now. The deepness will come with time, and your lines will get deeper as the muscle develops.”
Not only do I have large shoulder muscles now; I have really ugly hands and scratched up fingernails that will never look nice and smooth – all for the sake of art. I get callouses regularly and I still cut myself sometimes, though not as often as when I first started. I spent three months practicing lines and curves before I even got to engrave a real piece of jewelry – a copper ring that hangs from my rearview mirror to remind me every day how far I’ve come.
The difference hand engraving makes
If you look at a piece of Florentine hand engraved jewelry under a microscope, it’s a bunch of roughly cut lines. It’s not meant to be perfect because the point of this style of engraving is to catch the light with each little facet, which makes engraved metal look sparkly as if it’s been set with hundreds of miniscule stones. It’s a very rough, raw form of engraving, and the individual lines don’t matter as much as the way the light hits the final design.
Other jewelers say they engrave by hand, but the tool in their hands is actually a pneumatic engraver powered by an air pump, so all they have to do is move it around, without applying pressure or elbow grease. When I say I engrave by hand, I just have a primitive tool in my hand; that’s it. There’s a lot more artistry and risk involved when you work by hand without the help of machines.
It may take 12 to 15 hours to engrave one piece of jewelry, but that doesn’t mean it happens in two or three days. You have to stop at least every so often just to set the tools down and stretch your hands (or else they’ll get stuck in that position), and take a longer break at least every once in a while to get up and walk around. It’s an intense, tedious technique that takes all of your focus, making it both mentally and physically exhausting.
Most people don’t understand the amount of work that goes into each piece of hand engraved jewelry, which means they don’t understand the price that goes along with it. I spend long, grueling hours engraving, and by the time I’m done, my hands ache (if they can open at all!) You have no idea the heart, pain, frustration, sweat, blood and tears that go into Florentine hand engraving.
It’s almost something you have to watch in action to understand, so it’s a huge advantage to have my studio inside The W Gallery so I can show customers the tools I use as I tell the story behind each piece.
You don’t need to know the science or the history behind Florentine hand engraving to appreciate it. You don’t need to know the names of the tools or what they do. You just need to realize how much work goes into it, and how long it takes to become skilled enough to do it all by hand.