If You Want to Inhabit the World of Your Novel, Take a Class
Adriana Trigiani on How a Gemology Class Helped Feed Her Literary Obsession
The late, great André Leon Talley shared that a writer’s inspiration begins at home. He spoke of the lasting influences of style, elegance and a point of view. My mother was a great Italian beauty who knew how to curate a look. She wore jewelry everyday-slim, gold bangles halfway to her elbows that made music when she gestured. Her earrings shimmered, drawing your eye to her face. The creation of jewelry is an ancient art and I wanted to learn about it.
The Good Left Undone commences at the turn of the last century when the Cabrelli family work as artisans commissioned by the Vatican to create the accoutrement for the celebration of the mass. After World War II, the craftsmen in Italy abandoned the pastoral commissions and opened their own shops to create fine jewelry for a worldwide clientele. The Vatican was no longer the largest employer of Italians in Italy.
I savor the months (and years) it takes as an idea takes root the subconscious. This is a luxurious process that plays out over time. I’ll tinker around with names for the characters and the places they live and work, sometimes write a few sentences, that may become a scene or a conversation or a turning point later. Sometimes I get so involved, the scene blossoms and there’s a chapter. But not much more than that. I don’t push because the story is still in the rumination stage.
The world of the novel is gestating, waiting to be realized. Soon, the confetti—the bits of paper, the notes, the paint chips, articles ripped from newspapers, photographs cut out of magazines, small bits of ribbon and fabric I’ve been collecting inform the story. The landscape of the story now has color and line. The research process begins in earnest.
The first thing I must do is find out everything I can about the place where the novel is set. Travel informs the research. I go to the place, whenever possible. I talk to people, walk around, savor their food, sleep in their rooms, breathe their air. I take in the light, the way the village moves, how it comes to life at sunrise and how it feels when it goes dark. Emotions comes into play when I stand in a church or find a bridge over a river or talk to someone who lived through the time I hope to capture. Research will tell what really happened where I stand, and sometimes I feel it. I will learn all about what people wore, how they spoke, what they cared about. I observe artisans and study their techniques, whether it’s shoemaking, cutting gemstones or baking bread.A writer should be obsessed with the world she brings to the reader. It helps to figure out what haunts you.
A writer should be obsessed with the world she brings to the reader. It helps to figure out what haunts you. A photograph of Elizabeth Taylor from 1976 taken with her then husband John Warner along with my parents is propped on my desk as I write. Ms. Taylor wears an opulent amethyst and diamond necklace with a purple silk pantsuit. Her eyes are lavender, jet black hair—a palette of contrasts—like the gold and amethyst necklace she chose to wear. The necklace steals the focus as though it’s the fifth person in the photograph.
There are accidents of fate that come into play when researching. Kristin Dornig Krantz from California called and said she was unable to come to New York City for a class—would I like to take her place? Christie’s, the venerable auction house held a show in 2019 Maharajas & Mughul Magnificence (which in a matter of weeks would become the highest yielding auction of Indian art and Mughul objects in history—and the second highest selling lot of private jewelry in history).
I had no idea Christie’s offered classes. Christie’s Education is a department in the complex that offers classes taught by curators, historians and experts in gemology. We attended lectures that analyzed particular pieces owned by patrons who had commissioned pieces for their private collections. When you follow priceless gems, they inevitably lead to royalty. We studied technique, cutting and design. We learned about the great jewelry houses and how they competed with one another for gemstones. The business of adornment is as old as a diamond itself.
The Indian art included pieces commissioned by the royal courts of India. We studied daggers dipped in enamel and swathed in rubies and emeralds, turban brooches glittering with sapphire and diamonds nestled on a bed of peacock feathers, necklaces, gold strands stacattoed bubbles of rubies. Men wore elaborate jewelry in the early Indian royal courts while the women were unadorned. Raw and cut gemstones purchased by the great European jewelers, including Cartier, were re-cut and refashioned into au courant jewelry (Art Deco for example) and re-sold. A Maharaji’s multi layered diamond necklace would be sold and taken apart. The stones were so large, thousands of women would eventually wear a diamond cut from the original.
Fellow students asked insightful questions and offered their knowledge of particular pieces. The instructor’s enthusiasm stoked our imaginations, and soon, we were thinking like a buyer—and sometimes an artisan.
Vatican gem-cutters, like all artisans employed by the Holy Church of Rome worked on a commission. They did not make a fabulous living, but they did negotiate their own terms. Perhaps the gem cutters created for the love of the art—the legacy of the craftsmanship, the good name of the family—or they believed their craftsmanship was an offering to honor the glory of God. If their Creator inspired the beauty of the monstrance soldered from gold and set with incandescent rubies, that was compensation enough for the work.
If India was the source of the priceless gems and Italy was among the top purveyors. Rubies, mined in the hills of India were symbolic of faith, loyalty, and love. They were cut, polished, worn and passed down through the ages. Eventually, as these things go, gems are sold to the highest bidder when a family needs an influx of cash. Some pieces were sold to private collections, and others to museums. The royal families of Europe sent experts to purchase the finest stones to add to their sumptuous collections. And of course, some gems even found their way into the Vatican collection.
I learned about the properties present in gemstones beyond their monetary value. The gems had power—yes, they were valuable, they had worth, but they carried spiritual heft too. They held mystical power.
A gem seems like such a small thing, but like a carefully chosen word in a sentence, it can say everything. The smallest fragment of a larger story often carries the pith. I learned that every stone matters, and so does every word.
Adriana Trigiani’s The Good Left Undone is available now via Dutton.