FRANCO PIANEGONDA: THE LORD OF SILVERS
Franco Pianegonda is a myth of international jewelry. He is in love with Vicenza and its goldsmith tradition, at age 52 he has the enthusiasm of a boy who still wants to conquer the world. In his special way.
I will tell you about it exclusively…
Franco, we’ve known each other for a lifetime but you’ve never really told me about yourself…
“I was born near Padua in 1968.”
Ah … you are like Andrea Palladio, also from Padua but from Vicenza by adoption.
“Hey yes (laughs) … come on, let’s not exaggerate! However, to understand to what extent my being from Vicenza has marked my life and what an original mix of destinies merged what I am today, I have to make a brief genealogical excursus. My grandfather was born in Valli del Pasubio, because his father, an esteemed Austrian naturopath, was called upon by the Venetian families to cure them with plants and herbs.
To make his way through life autonomously, he decided to emigrate to Australia.
When he returned back home with the nest egg earned by cutting sugar canes and risking his life (Australia at the time was not the super civilized one we know today), he decided that the right place to stop was a village in the Padua area, “Campodoro” … A name that was destined to be written in the stars for me. He had 6 children with my grandmother, one of whom was a boy, my father. “
“One of my father’s sisters had moved to Germany and worked in a hotel, the same hotel where a beautiful Spanish girl was staying. My father, who had gone there to visit his sister, accidentally met the girl. It was love at first sight and they moved to Campodoro. It was a leap in the dark for a foreign girl with a bright personality and a great desire to live and have fun. It was an even larger leap considered the lifestyle of Veneto countryside of a few decades ago. But in the end her charge of positivity got the better of it and here my story begins. My sister and I were born. I was born in 1968, a year not at all the same as the others …
I started my schooling in Padua in the technological field and I immediately understood that it wasn’t my way. I needed to socialize, not to isolate myself by doing technical calculations. So I decided to combine the school activity with some part-time jobs. And here Vicenza returns in my destiny because I started working in one of the most famous and trendy boutiques of the time, the legendary Bottega Pazza managed by the equally mythical Vicenza character, Saverio Miazzo (for friends “not serious drummer” NDR). “
Wow! Vicenza’s first boutique … a myth for me too.
I’ll deduce that you were able to get in touch with the British fashions of the period and the first brands of jeans made in Italy, of which Bottega Pazza was a recognized ambassador.
“Exactly, that’s right … and it was love at first sight. Fashion, style and trends were a familiar and congenital world to me. Even though I was a boy with Saverio I created an excellent relationship. We were a team. He took me to Milan to shop and delegated me with many activities that required a certain responsibility, because he was, and remains, a genius artist.
These were literally fantastic years for me and for an entire generation of people from Vicenza, especially for those who, and at that time there were many, worked successfully in the “gold field”. So I decided to try it too. At first as a seller, of course. As a good Veneto person, the motto for me was “first the schei” (money comes first).
In fact, what may appear to be a materialistic attitude is actually the most important aspect of any business. Even if the idea or product is excellent, if it is not sold the business closes. And there are few good sellers.
“Exactly! Selling is essential. And it was very good for me, to the point that at 26/27 years old I could define myself economically successful. But there was an aspect of my work that counter attacked to my vision of things and life, in particular with the world of women. I was not satisfied with what I was selling. I realized that I was unwittingly proposing jewels that were the result of a “male-dominated” vision, typical of the Vicenza goldsmith sector, but also Italian and international, since the dawn of time.
Jewelry has always been something that is produced by men and then bought by men who eventually give it to women.
In this chain, the role of women, despite being the final and most important link in the process, is paradoxically marginal because it is always men who hold the economic power, who decide and evaluate, almost always in terms of the economic value of the object. It is natural for them to do so without worrying about the aspects related to the female sensitivity, the need of emotions for every woman and the style with which a jewel must inevitably combine when it is worn. I, who had got to know the world of fashion had caught this big difference. There in fact, women’s collections were created for women, often created by women or in any case by stylists with great sensibility. Nothing is left to chance as far as respect for female needs is concerned, let alone a creation for its weight, as in the case of jewelry.
And so it happened and still happens that a woman comes out of a boutique dressed like a goddess but with totally inappropriate jewels on her, this only says how much money her husband has … In fact, at the end these jewels are no longer actually worn, but they first get put in the bank and then often become a matter of dispute during the couple’s divorce… “
This analysis of the jewelry market is beautiful and interesting. I know it well, but nobody had pointed out to me this conceptual “short circuit”.
“I remember very well the arguments that led to the sale. It was useless for me to talk to the husbands about the aesthetic and emotional needs of their wives, the flexibility and originality of the models … with the husbands I only needed to talk about the value in grams, how many precious stones there were and the safe value of the investment. And sale was done.
But after the first commercial successes I didn’t like this game anymore. Too easy and not very inclined to my personality. I was born in 1968, a revolutionary and intellectual generation. I was starting to perceive clearly that we were moving from an era dominated by mechanics to an era made by ideas. And I was not lacking of ideas. Just like you are not lacking ideas … In your studio, where we are talking to each other, you can breathe creativity. “
Thanks, I agree. For me too ideas are the real raw material of our times. So what did you do to get out of the golden cage that you had built yourself professionally?
“I realized that going into this new historical phase, women could no longer be denied the opportunities to create economic independence and that therefore they could finally be the protagonists of their own choices, starting from those choices related to aesthetic and emotional needs, like jewels. This changed the millennial paradigms of my field. For the first time the woman no longer necessarily needed a man to allow herself the luxury of a jewel. And even men began to perceive a greater sensibility. And it is at this point that I decided to come into play no longer as a commercial pawn for other people’s companies, but as a real stylist and creator of jewelry designed primarily for women and their needs. Unlike all the operators in this field, for me it was necessary to put creativity, elegance, refinement, love, sensuality and even eroticism at first place… that is, I fully tuned into the female universe. This also explains my choice to focus on silver. “
Right … silver is the metal that in astrology is associated with the Moon, which in return symbolizes the female universe … it fits.
“Not only that … unlike gold, silver allows you to make important but not overly expensive objects, making them accessible even to women who are not yet professionally successful. At the time this choice of mine was not appreciated by the establishment of this field, to then be cleared by customs also due to the various international economic crises.
Even today, 80% of my production is made in silver while many brand manufacturers today have even gone to very low-level alloys, such as steel for example, trying to make them perceived as precious. But in a scenario like the current one, dramatically weighed down by the Covid 19 emergency, everyone tends to buy carefully. People realize that they have wasted money in the past on odd valuables and for this reason silver appears even more like a noble metal. The difference between a real jewel and a beautiful bijoux lies in being able to be inserted in what I call “casket”, which is something that women jealously guard and pass from mother to daughter. There is no room for trinkets there. “
And how did this process, in its historical way, fit into the Vicenza goldsmith fabric?
“I must say that Vicenza has always worked to keep this principle firm. It’s difficult to find companies that have abandoned noble metals to switch to low-level alloys. It has remained one of our excellences. In Vicenza there is a very important goldsmith tradition that dates back to the 1400s. It is part of our DNA to create objects destined to be handed down from generation to generation. A tradition that we should rediscover and relaunch especially in international circumstances. In a world where everything is increasingly standardized and mass-produced, Vicenza’s manufacturing knowledge of noble metal is an extraordinary strength. Operators from all over the world envy us, but Vicenza cannot communicate it to the international consumers. Someone who has a noble past like ours, from Palladio to the Venetian Republic to the humanistic culture, should make a better use of it to enrich the present. We as the Vicenza sector should rewrite the future based on our history, something that very few in the world can brag about. “
And what should you do? In my opinion, a plan is needed, otherwise every action becomes an end to itself or random …
“There is no plan because we are Italian and we still carry the antique motto “divide et impera” (divide and rule) from the ancient Romans. Division determines weakness, while on the contrary union is notoriously strength. But in the modern world this model should no longer exist. We are a melting pot of cultures and knowledge that should be expertly mixed and shared. Instead of “dominating” over others, one must “learn” from others, and vice versa. “
So you feel like a son of the Vicenza goldsmith tradition and his modern ambassador …
“I was born in” Campodoro “… evidently I entered this field by “divine call “. It is certainly a delicate task to be carried out at a high level. In our area we all have some close person who has to do, or has had to do, with the goldsmiths, for which a collective competence has developed, now entered in our DNA, which is a severe judge with whom to deal with what to do.
When you talk to an ex goldsmith (because alas over the years many have had to downsize or close their business) even if you’re talking to a bench worker it’s like having in front of you an ex footballer who tells, almost with tears of emotion, of his memories on the field game … so clear that he would like to return to the field immediately, other than retirement …
Here, Maurizio, there is a skill that is frightening and that has no equal in the world. It should be protected as WWF does with endangered species. Who makes a jewel is a special person … he knows he does it for those who have to give a gift to a special person or get a gift for themselves. Behind each jewel there is an act of love, or of great or small happiness. To understand what I mean, just think of a worker from Beretta in Brescia, just to make a striking example. Knowing that he is creating a weapon is very different from knowing that he is creating future joy.
(It is no coincidence that the word “joy” is synonymous with jewel. NDR)
When I make a jewel, I know that I will make someone happy. And this is an extraordinary motivation when working. Few sectors in the world offer this opportunity. Whether he is one who welds, or who cleans, or who shines, everyone knows that in the end their work will turn on someone’s eyes.”
Fantastic observation … But let’s be honest, Vicenza is no longer the world capital of Gold … The Fair is no longer “Vicenza”, the big companies have disappeared and in this context you are a “highlander”.What has happened in the past 20 years? In your opinion, what was the main mistake that made Vicenza lose this strategic asset?
“No, there is nothing wrong. I simply think it is the effects of this changing world. We are experiencing the greatest revolution after the industrial revolution that had brought people from the fields to the factories. It was not someone’s fault if agriculture no longer paid off and it was convenient for entire generations to choose factories. Today it is the same. Some activities are no longer convenient and therefore it is normal for young people to choose other professional paths. But just as some have continued to make agriculture, improving its techniques and working approach, the same is happening in the Vicenza gold sector. Those who stay are better than those who gave up and will conquer their positions.
The digital world is what drives change today. Which, metaphorically, means using muscles, but being well guided by the brain. “
So you still have hopes for Vicenza goldsmiths?
“Sure! I don’t think it’s too late. The expert workers are still here. Stylistic wisdom is here. You just need to activate a virtuous circle and team up to regain leadership. It is very doable because today this leadership is not “someone’s” … it is vacant … There is no place in the world that has the same age-old tradition, production capacity and taste for beauty that is inherent in Vicenza. Indians cannot do it because nobody buys a “Made in India” jewel. Same thing for Japan or China. We have this great fortune, which is also our limit, to be in the most beautiful country in the world so perhaps this sector leadership could be taken for example by the Florentines or the Milanese, the Romans, the Neapolitans, but it’s difficult that London could take it.
Paris could do it, where there is an equally secular tradition, where some of the most important brands of world jewelry were born and where they are masters also in the use of words, content and marketing.
The French, when they want, are able to present themselves as well as few. Just think of the difference in perception between Champagne and Franciacorta … “
That’s true … the case of the Castles of the Loire is striking, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world as a result of a consortium strategy, developed decades ago, which taught everyone how to do it. With us, the Venetian Villas, which are no less, are penalized by a fragmentation of initiatives each coming from the individual owners, so in fact the international tour operators cannot insert them even if they would want in their tourist packages.
“Exactly … but the game is not closed, since Paris does not yet have the jewel’s leadership. It may aspire, but the games are not yet made and Vicenza today should accelerate. There is a whole wonderful region behind it, Veneto and especially Venice, with a charm that could help attract international operators on the same level as Paris and even more. “
Very true, however, in my opinion Vicenza at this precise historical moment may have still preserved its production capacity, but it does not have the “mind”. And it never had it in my opinion. This is its limit. Great realization capacity, but little vision. The motto of the typical Vicenza character is “head down and work” … but with a low head you cannot see the horizon. I don’t see stylists, I don’t see innovative creativity, I don’t see geniuses … you are, as I said, a highlander … you come from that culture, from that period that luckily you lived as a young man and of which you have been able to take the best for later, with courage, distance yourself at the right time and totally renew yourself.
“Exactly… once it was fine and rightly so. Today it is no longer enough to know how to produce … you need to have the ability to synthesize in a jewel, and this is not a well-understood factory job, a whole series of values that are no longer just “a little per gram”. You have to intercept and understand the consumer, because I repeat the woman is the fulcrum, and even foresee what she will be able to appreciate and desire in the future … well believe me, there are not many in the world who know how to do it. I got there thanks to a practically unrepeatable professional path. “
So what should Vicenza do to enter this mental model before it is productive?
“Look, there are excellent minds, not necessarily in the gold sector. Figures that should be involved around a working table with the institutions. But a table that is free from past logics where to draw a precise strategy and that knows how to go and get the necessary resources to its implementation. Without investments it cannot be done. But be careful, not investments in “technology”, if not the necessary to keep up with the times. But in brains. We need people who have the ability to tell in advance what will happen and how to move better. The mega companies that do not need brains are all in Asia. Large production capacities but of a medium-low and standardized level. We cannot and must not compete with them. We have to fly higher. “
I agree … a case comes to my mind that should be taken as a model whenever there is a crisis in a sector. I am referring to Switzerland, once the undisputed leader in the production of mechanical watches known for their precision. In the early 1980s, his leadership was challenged by the first Japanese digital watches, even more precise, but infinitely cheaper. An entire nation threatened to collapse. It was therefore decided to have a reaction and a single man, Nicolas Hayek, was commissioned with an important budget. He understood that for Swiss watchmaking the battle could no longer be fought on precision, nor on value in terms of preciousness. The winning move was to produce low-cost digital watches, but with an extra “quid”: creativity and style. Thus was born the Swatch phenomenon that not only curbed the Japanese invasion, but created a world brand capable of relaunching high-level Swiss watchmaking by induction.
“Bravo! Exactly what I meant. Today we are on the same level as that historical moment, but unlike the Swiss who are an tidy and coordinated people, we tend to be individualistic.
So you need an aggregation of industry players who make each budget available and someone who manages this budget has a vision. Only in this way can we hope to bring Vicenza the world capital of gold. Let’s not forget that there were two fairs a year here that brought a huge armature to the territory. Everyone benefited from it. Today all this is only a timid memory, but it could easily come back into vogue because there is practically no competitor at international level. But VicenzaOro should be totally reinvented. “
So your recipe is to reclaim the historical manufacturing roots to bring them in a beautiful copy, modernized, and to re-propose Vicenza as the world capital of jewelry.
“Exactly … if I’m from Rome and I have” ruins “here and there, all I have to do is dig, clean and give prestige to the rest still buried. And I do the themed park “Gardaland”. It does not take a genius to understand that when you have such an important legacy as that of Vicenza in the goldsmith’s shop, you simply have to “dig” and restore prestige using all possible and imaginable marketing and communication techniques. And if I want to do things with a size appropriate to the times I do it with a great guardian angel at my side, that is Venice and the whole Veneto. Only in this way can we compete today. When I introduce myself to those who don’t know me, I say that I am from Veneto, Venice, the city of love, beauty and art …
Vicenza is in fact a little Venice. “
Very true … All the Palladian wonders are the work of the great Venetian noble families who had residences on the mainland here.
“Vicenza with Andrea Palladio has revolutionized the canons of architecture, that is, the material that is still the most powerful form of human activity today, the one that most influences people and determines their lifestyle. We therefore have all the elements to excel today. We only need to know how to read, understand, put together and be the Vicentines of 2020 who, working with ardor, will leave an indelible mark of excellence for future generations. “
But going back to your professional history, how did you deal with the transition from seller to jewelry manufacturer?
“With great naturalness … first some shops that gave me confidence, then gradually open the Pianegonda single-brand showcases. The first in Florence, the second in Verona, then Milan, Padua, Paris, Milan, Miami in a continuous succession of successes. Until around 2008, when I saw the clouds of that hurricane rising on the horizon that would have knocked down all borders and made it almost impossible for a single brand to be present everywhere. In fact it was moving from a series of “packs” of selected customers in the world, to a horizontal audience of 7 billion people. On one hand, a theoretically extraordinary opportunity. On the other, the impossibility of being able to relate to 7 billion people. Globalization has made us all drastically smaller. And poorer.
If I wanted, say an example, to acquire immediate fame in a province, I would do like Renzo Rosso who bought the Vicenza professional soccer team with a few million euros. If you want to become famous instead know I should buy Juventus in Italy, and here I would need many more millions. If then I wanted to be known globally, I would have to buy Formula 1 and it is easy to understand that economic power should be immeasurable. It is no coincidence that at these levels it is now a matter of exclusive relevance of depersonalized international investment funds.
To give another example, it was like seeing Vicenza from the helicopter and then suddenly seeing it from the moon … a dot!
For us who had maintained their operational and financial roots in the territory where the whole economic-banking system is crunched point by point, it meant losing gasoline when the engine would have had to turn to a thousand.
And the boat stopped in the middle of the sea at the mercy of the increasingly impetuous and disturbing waves. “
A metaphor that makes the idea … And how did you react?
“Since 2013 I have started slowly again, with due care and differences, especially trying to” understand “. Never before has Socrates’ teaching “I know I don’t know” apply, a motto that I engraved on my children’s study table. More than producing and selling, today we must be able to read the past, interpret the present and imagine the future. “
In light of this extraordinary experience of yours that would seem to comprehend multiple lives but is concentrated in one, where are you directing your talent? Has your goal remained to always give emotions to the woman or have you changed your point of view?
“Good! You said well .. it would take at least 5 lives to live what I have experienced so far.
The goal for me has remained certainly the same, indeed more and more, but working with the utmost craftsmanship. Today the market is divided into multinationals that prey on the market. A phenomenon that I define, with a hint of healthy irony, governed by producers of “anti-gravity” jewelry, so light as to seem almost tissue paper. Products designed and manufactured to look heavy but have the minimum possible amount of precious metal. For me, the jewel (and telling me it takes off a large ring making it fall heavily on the NDR table) must instead be primarily “important”. It must weigh. It must communicate preciousness in all senses. And be noticed for its concreteness. “
This gives me the starting point for a question that I recently asked myself when I saw the advertising of the new “Pianegonda” brand jewels that seem to be different from the ones you used your admirers in the world to.
“Today the Pianegonda brand has been sold and therefore, as it is no longer the result of my creativity, it is normal that it is different. Whoever is carrying out that brand probably points to a mass audience that has very different expectations and needs from my audience. “
So what are you pouring your creativity into?
“Next to the giants of the “anti-gravity” jewel, there are also niche realities, like mine, which have what Americans call “unique proposition”, or a clear reason to stay on the market. I recognize myself in this example. The activity is today based on my personal ability to read women’s trends and tastes, interpreting a mix of factors such as life style, culture, fashion, refinement, art and nature. A philosophy aimed at public niches and therefore very different from that which points to the masses with a product of little intrinsic value.
Today every consumer has his own tribe in which he recognizes himself and wants products designed only for him. Therefore, the model of the past no longer works when several collection concepts were proposed under one umbrella.
For example, we turn to the younger female audience with the “PNG 68” line, made up of models designed to be safe in the “treasure chest”, but above all to be worn. A line that starts from that wind of revolution born in 1968 and that I always carry with me. “
“Then there is the” Franco Piane “line, with more complex and elaborate jewels for a more aware and evolved target, often enriched with gold and precious stones.”
“There is also the “Je t’aime now” line, designed to allow those who experience love or an important feeling, to mark with a precious seal certain particular moments to never forget, like an engagement, an anniversary, a wedding, a baptism etc.
And finally there is the “Character” line, designed this time for men. In fact, I believe that the most important element of a man is not the wallet but the character. And my men’s jewelry aims to enhance this aspect. “
“In all this context, my personal figure as a stylist, jeweler and artist takes on an easily understandable relevance and constitutes its reference point.”
A curiosity, regarding engagements and love. You who have lived an era of your field, characterized by principles at least apparently consolidated, how do you interpret globalization in terms of sexual attitudes? Do women and men still exist in terms of jewelry?
We are living in an era in which a jewel of yours designed for a woman could appeal to a man, perhaps more refined than the average and vice versa a jewel designed for a man could be worn with pride by a woman who does not want to appear as such. Don’t you think that the clear distinction of the past “man-woman” is also overcome for your sector, as has happened for some time in fashion?
“I also often discuss this with my team. My personal vision is still romantic and traditional, but today I believe that the concept of man and woman should be read only as a type of sensitivity. Which can be interchangeable depending on the individual and its choices that I respect with great openness.
I’ll give you an example .. in the “Character” line there is the chain on whose plate I add a carpet of roses or diamonds … I thus put together the strong part with the sensitive part of the man, because I think this is the right way to propose today, mediating the extremes. A few centuries ago they challenged each other to a duel … A few decades ago men punched each other. Today man must be able to relate, especially with the woman, on a different level from the muscular one. Similarly, when I create for women I also tune in to their masculine part which is always present.
But I have to say that I’ve always done this, well before the recent sexual revolution.”
Where can we admire your new creations?
“Despite having had shops and ateliers all over the world, I have always wanted to maintain a” physical “connection with my territory, and in particular with the historic heart of Vicenza, precisely for the reasons I explained earlier.
Today I opened a new atelier in Corso Palladio, where I welcome friends and clients with pleasure to establish what is the fundamental element of my style and my work: getting to know people and their emotional universe. Only in this way can we tune in to their needs and create jewels that are then able to represent them at their best. “
You have achieved many important professional goals, which I imagine you will want to replicate. But is there something you feel you missed and want to try to achieve? As if to say, a winning footballer who also wants the Golden Ball. What’s your dream?
“I consider myself very lucky and I am experiencing a positive period, not only professionally. The dream is to always do better what I have always done, transforming what is generally a period of involution into a real opportunity. There are still grasslands to conquer because unlike fashion, where brands are now few, globalized and unchallengeable, it is still possible to leave a mark in jewelry. And I intend to leave it. “
Bravo Franco! You can do it!