The Art of Goldsmithing: From Ancient Greece to Modern Masters

Detail from the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum collection

The medallion is meticulously hammered into the shape of a maenad, surrounded by intricate filigree with spool-shaped beads flowing down the sides in rows of three. This masterpiece, a gold openwork hairnet, is a testament to the unsurpassed skill of the Hellenistic goldsmith. It currently resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with its counterparts in the Hellenistic Treasury.

While these artistic masterpieces are surely praise-worthy, Greek goldsmiths are not relics of the past. They continue to train in workshops and pass the secrets of the trade down generations from father to son. Silently toiling away, the goldsmiths have kept the past alive in their work, and since its revival half a century ago, Greek gold jewelry has never gone out of style.

The trend enjoyed an upswing in popularity after the tourism boom of the 1950s, when European and American visitors became enamoured with all things Greek. By the end of the ’70s, there were nearly 5,000 goldsmith workshops employing 50,000 craftsman in Athens, Ioannina, Corfu, and Rhodes.

“The craft of goldsmithing today is becoming part of the heritage and history of our country through contemporary creation which connects the ancient and the modern,” explains Mrs Ioanna Lalaounis, Chief Curator & Director of the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum (ILJM) in Athens. Her late father Ilias Lalaounis was among the first jewelers to revive ancient Greek style jewelry and bring it back in fashion. Lalaounis was the fourth generation of a family of goldsmiths and watchmakers, and it was his devotion to his heritage that made his work so unique.

Lalaounis is known for fusing ancient techniques like filigree, granulation, hand hammering, and repoussé with contemporary styles. Incorporating a variety of metals and precious and semi-precious stones, Lalaounis designed styles that would suit a variety of modern consumers. His work has since made its way into the canon of fine art, and Lalaounis is still the only jeweler to be inducted in the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

His legacy continues directly through his daughters Katerina and Maria Lalaounis, but his influence extends to a wider array of designers and craftsmen. The tremendous popularity of Greek gold jewelry meant that international big label designers would also pick up the trend. David Yurman’s newest collection, Helena, features his signature cable motif embellished with delicate gold bands reminiscent of ancient mixed-metal work. The Greek influence is ubiquitous, but all too often, Greek craftsmen and designers are left out of the story. Buttressed by social media and the increasingly connected modern world, young local designers are now able to break onto the world stage and reclaim the craft of their forefathers.

Extricate gold bracelets by Lalaounis

“The craft of goldsmithing has now blossomed as Greek jewelry designers are successfully exporting their creations and have developed their brands, targeting both the local and the international market,” explains Nikos Koulis of Nikos Koulis Jewels. Koulis earned his stripes studying Gemology and Glyptography in the Gemological Institute of America. He founded his namesake jewelry company in 2006, and today his exclusive designs can be found in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. His flagship boutique is tucked into the upmarket neighbourhood of Kolonaki in Athens.

Like Lalaounis, Koulis aims to, in his words, “revisit classic staples in a contemporary way.” His collection Medusa, named for the mythical Gorgon, feature snakes as its central theme, symbolising rebirth and fertility. Playing with natural form and colour of snakes, Koulis applies enamel, various stone types and cuts, and elaborate details to his designs.

Koulis and his contemporaries walk the fine line between paying homage to the past while always looking forward. Christina Soubli is a member of the Hellenic Wave, a group of Greek contemporary designers of fine jewelry. Her signature style incorporates ancient filigree in 18k gold with a modern twist. “Filigree technique was used to decorate metal surfaces with patterns, whereas for my creations, there is no other surface; it is solo,” Soubli explains. The results are delicate, intricate patterns that cradle gemstones, diamonds, and pearls, garnering numerous awards and honors for her work.

For young designers like Koulis and Soubli, trust in the ancient techniques has proven to be a wise choice. The jewellery industry is diverse and ever changing, and it can be difficult to gauge the trends. The key to success is creating pieces of high quality and lasting value. While its predecessors reside untarnished in leading museums around the world, some of Soubli’s work graced the “New Territories” exhibit at the ILJM, reinforcing the duality of Greek jewelry as modern fashion and museum-quality artifact.

For Greek designers, history and tradition will remain the cornerstone of their craft. “History reminds the artists that often to advance, they have to respect their traditions and utilize it through new concepts,” concludes Mrs Lalaounis.

Attend an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum and attend a private workshop that celebrates the revival of this traditional craft when you book the Insider Experience at InterContinental Athens.

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