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My Valentine in Orange

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

I received a beautiful Valentine’s gift yesterday. One that sent my imagination adrift – to the ringing of Gothic cathedral bells, the clacking of horse hooves on cobblestone streets and to the scent of paraben, vegetable dye and wood shavings in the air. It sent me back to Medieval times and to the age of trade guilds. It was a time when masters like masons, weavers, carpenters, carvers, cobblers, metal smiths, and glass blowers formed associations for common protection and mutual aid. These associations held their skills and traditions sacred and performed them with the utmost degree in quality. Success in the production of their wares was, in part, due to secret processes they had developed – that is, “trade secrets”.

The founders of these guilds were free, independent master craftsmen who, in turn, hired apprentices. Apprentices could be as young as twelve years old and training could last as long as 14 years. At the end of training, an apprentice became a craftsman and then a journeyman. A journeyman went on to become a master craftsman and eventually a grand master.

Guilds ensured that anything made by a member was up to standard and was sold for a fair price. Membership of a guild was an honor and a sign that the worker was skilled and had respect in society.

So, what was the gift that conjured such centuries-old images and senses? A wallet. One that, at first glance, seemed too beautiful to ever use yet one so hardily made, is bound to last a lifetime. Made of high quality cuoio leather, it is both lush-to-the-hand and rich in Mandarin orange color. A postcard with a photo and story about the artisan who made it, Davide Rossi, accompanied the wallet. Davide, who if not a direct descendant of a medieval guildsman is at least one in spirit, has been making leather goods since he was a little boy in Rome. He is known for his vibrant leather colors and in addition to “mandarino” orange, his purses and wallets also come in blue, red, yellow, black, and fuscia.

My uniquely special Valentine’s gift traveled from Davide’s workshop in Rome by way of the new Marin-based company, “The Best of Italia”. The founder, Toni Galli Sterling, has roots in Italy and has studied, lived and traveled there for the past 35 years. As a teenager, one of her Abruzzesi cousins gave her an engraved copper plate which ultimately became the impetus for her new company. Toni’s keepsake had struck such a deep cord of curiosity that she brought it to her professor of Art History at Gonzaga University in Florence, Dr. Mercedes Carrara. Dr. Carrara explained that copper was used for centuries in Abruzzo for practical items like pots and plates with origins dating back to the Etruscans and Samnites. But sadly, as with all ancient hand-trades, there are only a few artisans left in Italy who practice them.

Toni’s innate appreciation for her studies at Gonzaga long ago, along with her ongoing travels throughout Italy, prompted her to seek and promote this dying breed of artisans before their trade secrets are forever lost. In addition to Davide Rossi, Toni has also collaborated with Giuliano Ricchi of Florence, a gold, brass and silver smith who follows the traditions of Renaissance master, Benvenuto Cellini.

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