Chinking metal on metal and hissing naked flames form the soundtrack to lab time at the Oltrarno’s LAO – Le Arti Orafe jewellery-making school. Turn off bustling via dei Serragli and walk through the centuries-old courtyard into the bowels of the sprawling complex. This is where the next generation of jewellers are forged.
Giò Carbone established the school in 1985 “almost by chance”, he tells me, as a baker’s dozen of students concentrate on heating, welding and engraving. “I was working as a goldsmith in the Eighties and I had a workshop in piazza Santo Spirito. Every now and then, a youngster would pass by and ask if they could learn something. Then by a curious turn of fate, I became friends with a guy who had a huge space in via dei Serragli. He was about to retire and said to me, ‘I’m leaving, so you can have it if you want.’ I thought to myself, ‘It’s really big. What would do with it?’ In the end, I threw myself into it. At that point, in addition to the bottega, there was the idea of opening a school.”
The venture was an immediate success. “Back then, there weren’t any schools like ours. The students multiplied over two or three years. That’s when we started to structure things more, finding instructors as well as introducing theory and design courses.”
LAO remains a Florentine gem 35 years on and is regarded as one of the most prestigious jewellery schools in Europe, attracting students from all over the world. Italians and internationals study side by side for as long as three years, honing technical expertise, artistic research and design dexterity. What hits home is the absolute focus that these learners apply to their craft. Mobile phones are set aside as precious metals are filed into finery and books are browsed in the impressive on-site library. The camaraderie is tangible between scholars and instructors alike.
Down the street in the school’s original building, newly arrived students are on Day Two of their engraving course. As they buff and trim, the tutor lifts a lid on a display case of rings and bracelets made in previous years. One’s a glinting gold ring emblazoned with the Florentine lily, an understated celebration of the city’s artisan heritage, just like LAO’s ongoing mission to educate the craftspeople of tomorrow.