Buying Gold on the Ponte Vecchio
Buying Gold on the Ponte Vecchio
QUESTION: Growing up as an Italian-American in the 50’ & 60’s, it always seemed that everyone of my family and friends had some sort of gold chain with a cross or medal around their neck. Often the gold was given to you by your godparents or sponsor at your confirmation, and you were certainly obliged to wear it forever. I’d like to continue this tradition for the next generation in our family. My wife and I are traveling to Florence this year and I understand that the Ponte Vecchio is the place that specializes in gold. Can you give me some tips on buying gold there?
New Haven, Conn.
Your question came to me at the perfect time, as my wife Sandra and I were on our way to Firenze (Florence) for a short visit. I made it one of my missions to explore the history of the Ponte Vecchio and learn more about the “ins and outs of buying” GOLD. I had the opportunity to interview a 3rd generation jeweler on the Ponte Vecchio named Carlo Piccini. Carlo and his family have been in business on the Ponte Vecchio since the 1920’s and his shop is legendary for its quality, craftsmanship and design. Carlo was very generous with his time and gave me a crash-course on the history of the Ponte Vecchio and the “HOW-TO” of buying gold in Florence.
THE PONTE VECCHIO
The Ponte Vecchio is the bridge that crosses the Arno River in the center of Florence and was originally constructed by Roman soldiers over 2000 years ago. Florence at the time was a Roman army encampment and this was a very strategic military location along the best route connecting Rome with the North. Through this advantageous position, the settlement rapidly expanded into an important commercial center. Until the 1200’s, the Ponte Vecchio was the only way to cross the Arno until a series of other bridges were built.
In the 1300’s shops began to spring up along the bridge, mostly butchers who would conveniently throw their waste into the Arno River below.
However, during the height of the Renaissance things had changed. The ruling Medici family was living on the north side of the Arno at the Palazzo Vecchio and had their offices at the Uffizi (which means offices in Italian). In about 1549 the Palazzo Pitti on the south side of the Arno (called the Oltrarno) came up for sale. Cosimo 1 di Medici and his family bought it and moved across the Arno to their new home. The Palazzo Vecchio became the government offices and the Uffizi later became the famous museum.
As a result of their move, the Medici family had to cross the Ponte Vecchio to get to work every day and did not like the smell of the butcher shops that lined the bridge. They decided that an upgrade was needed and gave the butchers six months notice to move and quickly replaced them with gold merchants.
Also, Cosimo di Medici had many enemies and walking to work everyday could be dangerous. So, he commissioned the architect Giorgio Vasari to design and build a safe-passage corridor that would lead from the Palazzo Pitti to their offices at the Palazzo Vecchio. This is known as the Vasari Corridor and is still in use today.
The Ponte Vecchio is the only one of Florence’s bridges to have survived WWII. In 1944, the Germans blew up all the other bridges over the Arno River as they retreated north after having occupied the city. Carlo told me that German General Gehring had placed the bombs on the Ponte Vecchio but at the last moment could not bring himself to destroy this historical site, as he was a lover of art himself. Instead, he blew up all the surrounding buildings that made it impossible for advancing armies to cross the river.
Today, the Ponte Vecchio is the centerpiece for commerce is this tourist driven city, and the crowds from surrounding squares seem to funnel endlessly across the bridge’s timeworn stone. As you stand in the center and look out over the peaceful Arno you tune out all of the hustle and bustle of the noisy city and feel as if you were transported back in time. The sky reflects in the Arno as if it is a mirror, and with the surrounding buildings along the edge it is a truly amazing site.
Not only is the Ponte Vecchio a wonderful place to shop for gold, but it is also a vast gathering place for peoples from all walks of life. As I listened to Carlo tell me the story of the Ponte Vecchio, I could only imagine the famous people who have walked across these same stones on the bridge: from DaVinci, Machiavelli, Galileo, Donatello and Cellini to even Michelangelo.
HOW TO BUY GOLD
JUST THE FACTS:
“Knowing about Karats”
Gold is measured in karats and in its purest state is referred to as 24 karat (K), which is considered too soft for use in jewelry. By mixing (or alloying) it with other metals its hardness can be increased and its color modified. The term karat is used to designate the proportion of the actual amount of pure gold in a piece of jewelry.
24k: is 100% gold
18k: is 75% gold (18 parts gold and 6 parts other metals)
14k: is 58% gold (14 parts gold and 10 parts other metals)
In Italy 18k is the lowest legal standard to be called gold. In the USA 10k is the legal minimum accepted standard of gold, with 14k the most popular.
When I was growing up we could tell whose gold chains, crosses and medals came from Italy by looking at the K symbol. If yours had 18k, you were a big shot as it meant your gold was superior and it came from Italy.
“All that glitters is not Gold”
If a piece of jewelry is under the legal limit it must be called gold plated or gold filled and will contain very little real gold in the final product. Generally, this type of gold contains less then 5% gold and is a very bad investment…jewelers call it “fools gold”.
“The Color of Money (or Gold, that is)”
Various combinations of gold and other medals create different shades of gold. On the Ponte Vecchio you will find jewelers have created beautiful items by combining different colors of gold. Here are the most common colors:
Rose gold: gold combined with copper only
White gold: gold combined with copper, nickel and zinc
Yellow gold: gold combined with copper and silver
“You pay for what you get”
On the Ponte Vecchio gold is sold by weight. If are buying a jewelry piece that has been machine made, such as a chain, religious cross or wedding band, you can expect to pay around 20-euro per gram. The next level up is machine made items that the jeweler has modified and improved upon and you may pay up to 30-euro per gram. Then there are the hand made items that are designed and crafted by the jeweler and here you will pay over 40-euro per gram. This system easily allows for price comparison, as you know exactly how much actual gold you are buying by weight.
TRAVELERS TIP: How to bargain for a better price.
If you pay in EURO, simply ask for the cash discount that will be about 15% to 20%. If you spend more than about 200 EURO, you can ask for the additional DUTY FREE discount of 12%. It is important to ask for this, as they may not automatically give it to you.
EURO vs. DOLLAR CONVERSION:
Click here for the today’s exchange rate:
ALTERNATIVES to the Ponte Vecchio:
In Firenze you will find hundreds of other jewelry stores around this beautiful city. I must say that most of these stores practice the same principles of quality and price as the Ponte Vecchio. You may find a very special design you can’t live without off the Ponte Vecchio, but still be sure you verify the amount of karats in the piece and pay by weight.
Near the Piazza di Santa Croce you will find a number of more bargain related gold stores that offer a wide variety of machine made items. Again, prices will be similar but you may find more variety here, as a few of the stores are larger than the Ponte Vecchio’s small boutiques.
Just kitty corner to the Chiesa di Santa Croce is THE GOLD CORNER, located at Piazza Santa Croce, 15 (tel: 055 2478437). I found this store to be very legitimate and trustworthy, with a helpful staff and an ample selection of items. I had the opportunity to meet the owner, Andrea Pasquini, and he was a very gracious host as he gave me a tour of his store, and told me off his pricing policy as he showed off his beautiful assortment of jewelry.
“GOOD AS GOLD”
I cannot think of a better place in all of Italy to buy your keepsake jewelry then on the Ponte Vecchio. You will receive great value with assured quality, and craftsmanship, while making your purchase in an historic, and even romantic setting, which will give your items a time-honored sentimental value.
JUST FOR FUN
The Peep Holes on the Ponte Vecchio
In the early morning hours on the Ponte Vecchio you’ll notice the centuries-old tradition of the gold shops being boarded up. Many of these facades can be over 100 years old. Notice the little “peep-holes” in the boards. The shop owners keep on a little light and these holes are placed there so the night watchmen can look inside to be sure no one is inside.
The First Guy to go “BROKE”
Legend has it that the first shop keepers on the bridge were set up as sort of an outdoor flea market, selling all types of wares from wooden tables (before the butchers took over). It is said that anything sold here was granted a tax exemption that made it attractive to vendors to show their goods here.
It is interesting that the concept of bankruptcy originated here: when a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the “banco”) was physically broken (“rotto”) by city police and this practice was called “bancorotto” (broken table). Not having a table anymore, the merchant was not able to sell anything and was forced out of business.
A kiss is (not) just a kiss:
Over the past few years a new romantic ritual was born on the Ponte Vecchio. Couples from all over the world come to perform a ritual of promise. They write their names on little padlocks with a felt-tip pen and attach them to any gate or railing. After a long kiss they testify to their everlasting love and throw the key into the Arno, thus assuring eternal love as the river washes the key away and nobody can ever open the lovelock again.
The symbolism of the lock is heightened by the place where the ritual takes place: on a bridge – representing the joining of two worlds – and in Florence – one of the eternal cities of Italy. But this past summer after over 5000 locks accumulated on the bridge city council officials told police to hand out 50-euro fines to couples who insisted on declaring their love in metallic terms.
SPECIAL THANKS TO CARLO PICCINI
While I was in Firenze this past month my friends Nello and Miriam introduced me to Carlo Piccini. It was an honor for me to sit with Carlo, now in his 70’s, for over an hour of fascinating conversation at his shop aptly named Carlo Piccini Gioielleria. His grandfather opened this shop on the Ponte Vecchio in 1920 and now his son is also working in the business. During the Renaissance goldsmiths in Florence were part of the Arte e Mistiere Guild and were a very important part of the economic strength of the city. Carlo is proud of this centuries old heritage and is considered the patriarch on the bridge today.
Interesting side Note:
Carlo’s family is also in the wine business as his son-in-law is running the winery in Tuscany called Piccini.
Visit their winery website at: http://tenutepiccini.it/
MR. ITALY PENDANT
Upon my return home from researching about Italian gold and the Ponte Vecchio, I was inspired to design and commission a very special pendant. I had the opportunity to work with well-known Carmel jeweler Alex Agacanyan … and together we crafted our original expression of Italy.
After many trial molds, the first MR. ITALY PENDANT was made out of a ½ ounce solid block of 18 Karat Italian gold. Alex then hammered the molded gold into the shape of the Italy. I then commissioned three more and gave one to each of my sons and one to my paisano John Davi, the Godfather of Monterey. Each MR. ITALY PENDANT is hand hammered and a one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry.
ORDER YOU CUSTOM COMMISSIONED MR. ITALY PENDANT TODAY!
MR. ITALY PENDANT can be commissioned and crafted especially for you. Please allow about 3 weeks for the craftsmanship and delivery.
MR. ITALY PENDANT:
18 Karat GOLD: $895
Sterling Sliver: $295
For ordering, please e-mail directly to: