Celebrated Florentine jeweller Paolo Penko laughs as his tiny dog stands in the doorway of his glittering shop, howling in time and pitch with the sirens. “He always does that,” Paolo tells me, calling the dog over so I catch a glimpse of the tag on his collar, a florin, of course, the traditional medieval gold coin of Florence, with the fleur-de-lis on one side, representing this City of Lilies. Penko is utterly at home in his sumptuous space, surrounded by twinkling gems, intricate gold pieces, interns hard at work and his charming wife working quietly at a desk just behind him. For Paolo Penko the world of fine jewellery is second nature, having grown up in his family’s antique business, focused on ancient stamps and coins, on the Ponte Vecchio. The new studio where we meet to chat opened just over a year ago, giving the artist more space to design, create and display his “arte Fiorentina.” Penko worked with his father for 20 years and the idea of creating jewellery grew from the family’s love of history and antiques. Today Penko carries on the tradition of family, with his wife and two sons all joining him in the business.
Penko is deservedly proud of his art and he becomes delightfully animated as he shows me “the style of Firenze,” which incorporates the elements of pavements, marble, leaves, flowers: all the symbols that spring to mind when we think about the city of Florence. Penko works with sacred objects for churches and museums, helping in restorations, and he teaches as well. This is a man who is not so wedded to tradition that he overlooks the modern. “I love the arrival of youth, I can’t be static,” Penko says as he introduces me to interns working on his unique Penko technique of fine incisions in precious metals. He shows me how to look through the old ampolle d’acqua, glass balls filled with water, which diffuse light and served as magnifiers for artisans over the centuries. As I am pondering the timeless quality of the workbenches, with well worn tools and tiny trays of gems, we arrive at Penko’s desk and he produces a recent innovation, the first piece of jewellery ever created with a video inside the piece. The juxtaposition from a centuries old craft to the remarkable blending of beauty, skill and technology takes my breath away.Penko doesn’t notice, he is so earnest in his explanation about the endless possibilities for personalising a pendant with a tiny memory card, so the piece will show a rolling video or photos of the the wearer’s choice for the duration of an entire Italian evening party. He places the stunning gold creation in my palm and presses an invisible button, revealing a small but perfect video of birds wheeling through the sky. The flock soars on a breeze and turns through clouds, all the while surrounded by the dazzling jewelled pendant frame. Penko tells me “true luxury is to discover something special,” and I am in complete agreement.
He has created an individual, unique space that combines his family, his skill, his history and his passion into a seamless symphony of color and beauty. He explains that he allows private clients into his workshop in order to give them the inimitable experience of creating and buying a Fiorentine object that comes from their own hands and minds. As he shows me his delicate hand drawn sketches for Barney’s in New York, with whom he worked for over ten years, I see a piece of the true artist’s soul in this charming, larger than life man. He is a magnetic combination of traditional technique and a vanguard of skill and I can only imagine that having the opportunity to work with him on a piece of jewellery would be unforgettable.
Waving goodbye to his son and his wife, I extend my hand to thank him for such an intriguing morning. Penko’s love of his city and his craft are tangible as he drops a small traditional florin coin into my palm. “You must take this, keep it in your purse, it will give you luck and bring you back to Firenze,” he says as he kisses both my cheeks, in the very finest Italian style.