Simona Scala and the family business “Ornella Bijoux”: a know-how handed down from mother to daughter
The atelier Ornella Bijoux was founded in Milan in 1944 by Piera Barni. A historic business with an incredible story, bridged into present days thanks to the talent and determination of Simona Scala, the third generation at the helm of the business.
They create jewels with a vintage flavor, ofetn inspired by Art Nouveau, but also with a more contemporary taste, made up of original compositions of metals and Venetian stones, hand-painted ceramics and crystals, pearls and shells, as well as enamels, ropes, leather and feathers, mixed with freedom, harmony and originality.
An all-female enterprise, where know-how and craftsmanship have been handed down from mother to daughter for almost 80 years now.
Tell us the story of “Ornella Bijoux”.
The history of Ornella Bijoux dates back to the Second World War, and it is an all-female story of courage and relience: the company was founded in 1944 by my grandmother Piera Barni, who at the time worked as a secretary at Visconti di Modrone’s Gi.Vi.Emme Perfumes.
All of a sudden, she found herself having to decide whether to take the leap and risk everything by starting her own business.
In fact, during the war, both gold, a raw material needed for the creation of jewellery, and alcohol, necessary for the production of perfumes, disappeared from the market.
So Gi.Vi.Emme, not being able to make perfumes, proposed to “Calderoni Gioielli” to design and realize a collection of bijoux, which Gi.Vi.Emme itself would market through its distribution network.
When both gold and alcohol returned to the market in 1944, the two companies resumed their ordinary production, and Dino Villani, who was then the artistic director of Gi.Vi.emme, proposed to my grandmother to buy the costume-jewelery samples and start a new life, with a business of her own.
I am still surprised by the courage of this choice, because my grandmother was a widow with three children and her mother dependent on her, and she was providing for them all only with her salary; and, above all, she was still in the midst of World War II.
My grandmother called my mother, who was 14 at the time and was in sixth grade, and told her that they would start a new life and a new job.
Under the bombing, as my mother proudly told me, they began to tour Lombardy and Veneto by bike, to present, sell and deliver their bijoux, and they also arrived in Southern Italy thanks to the generosity of truck drivers, to whom they asked for a lift, since at that time the railway lines were all cut off.
For a few years they lived off the jewelry they had sold, then my mother, Maria Vittoria Albani, immediately showed an extraordinary talent for drawing, and thus she became, even if she had never studied, the pillar of Ornella Bijoux: from her imagination, more than 30,000 pieces were born, and we are still selling them today.
Over the years, my father, Mario Scala, has also joined the company. Having met my mother and grandmother on the train during one of their many journeys, he was immediately hired, and, until his untimely death, took care of the company administration.
In 1962 they also decided to open a prestigious store in via Montenapoleone in Milan, with the name of “Creazioni Maria Vittoria” (Maria Vittoria’s creations), where more than once, thanks to the collaboration with Biki, the famous Milanese seamstress, we created jewels for Maria Callas.
How did you decide to dedicate youself to this craft?
I was practically born in the company: the San Giuseppe hospital in Milan was 200 meters from our office and home in Via Carducci, and my mother left the workshop when she was in labor, and walked alone to the birthroom!
Since the house and the atelier were on the same floor of the building, they used to bring me to the office every day, and I was looked after by my mother, then by my grandmother or father, or even by the employees who had found a family in our company.
I grew up among beads, rhinestones, colored glass, chains and murrines: without even realizing it and, above all, without wanting to, I learned the trade, absorbing the passion and love that my whole family had for the craft, as well as to create new bijoux.
But, since my fate seemed to be already marked, I chose to explore other paths, following my interests: I graduated from university and pursued a career as a sport journalist, which at the time, moreover, was difficult to combine with the all-round role of mother, which I had promised myself to have with my children Pietro and Marta.
My mother, despite having been left alone in the meantime, since my father and my grandmother had died, continued her work, even if I think she knew in her heart that sooner or later I would have landed there too.
One can’t help one’s destiny, and mine certainly was to get to Ornella Bijoux, with the same love and dedication that my grandmother and my mother had put into the business before me. So, to give my mum a hand, I joined the company to initially deal only with sales, but, of course, at that point everything I had learned, seen, known and loved since I was a child emerged, and thus I stayed. Today I am glad I did.
What has changed over three generations, and what does it mean today to manage a business handed down from mother to daughter?
I believe that there are more things that have remained unchanged in 79 years of business and three generations (actually, currently it’s four generations, because my daughter Marta works with me in the company), than those that have changed: and these are the things that I believe and hope one can see in our jewels.
First of all, the passion and love for our work, but also the attention to detail in each piece of our collections; the joy of bringing shapes, colors and materials to life, even unexpected ones, in ever-changing expressions.
The business obviously had to fit into this time, and the evolution of the market. Now I think the management is much more complex, but we have tried to maintain its traditional character: sometimes this can be a limit, for example when we manage large runs in short times, since our bijoux are still made by hand today, one by one, and therefore require more time, and this does not fit into the fast online market, but this is the guarantee that the jewel is created specifically for the customer and can be personalized.
From a personal point of view, I feel the responsibility to carry on what was built by my grandmother, but above all by my mother, who was an uncommon creative genius, despite having always remained a humble and simple woman, loved by all.
She passed away four years ago, at the age of 90, and right up to the end she was totally and absolutely dedicated to her work, with the same creative force, the same love, the same imagination that allowed her to conceive ever-new designs for her creations, finding inspiration in the little everyday things. I miss her so much, but I feel that she is always here by my side, because this is her home.
What is your favorite technique and what does it consist of?
Actually, there is no favorite technique, I love playing with all materials, shapes and colors. If I had to choose, I would say that our flagship product are the brooches, all created entirely by hand, which are made with the welding technique, unlike most of the ones on the market today, mostly made in fusion.
This means that we have a jewel that can be modified or enriched every time, even following the needs of the customers, and that can evolve and change over the years, starting from the original creation.
Among the almost 4000 brooches in our archive, a large part is linked to the world of nature, a theme of inspiration very dear to us, and we often enhance them with the enamel technique, which allows us to emphasize the beauty of the floral compositions through colors.
What styles are you inspired by, to make your jewels?
As Giambattista Vico said, the sense of humanity passes from fantasy to logic and then, cyclically, returns to the starting point, according to the well-known theory of “historical courses and recourses”.
Even fashion and accessories inevitably repropose the themes of the past, declined according to today’s perspectives. So the sources of inspiration are always in the history of costume, fashion and jewellery.
We have an archive of over 30,000 models spanning 80 years of fashion history and, from this point of view, we are very lucky.
Then obviously everyone has a certain interest for a certain type of jewel and period, the one that most reflects our soul, our sensitivity and our taste.
I, like my mother before me, have a particular fondness for Art Nouveau, a style focused on the themes of nature, flora and fauna, in which there are no limits to the imagination, characterized by soft lines, which, with kindness and harmony, enhance the beauty of women.
How is the workshop organized today? Do you have collaborators who assist you in the work?
We have a workshop and showroom in the same place: as it has always been in the past, we have maintained the production and display of our creations in the same location, because we want customers to see how their jewels are made, browse our archive and see or choose the materials with which to give birth to their accessories.
I have internal collaborators for the manual creation of the jewels and a welding workshop outside our building.
Tradition is very important to us, and a good feeling with collaborators in the creation phase is fundamental: my mother has always created her jewels directly following their genesis in the welding workshop, where “we worked with our eyes closed”, thanks to the good connection that we had with the welder. Today, I am lucky enough to be able to do the same thing with his son, who also trained in the field under the guidance of his father.
Over the years you have worked with important brands and fashion maisons. What was it like working side by side with designers and other professionals of the field?
It was very rewarding. Those were different times and the work was organized differently, the fashion houses dedicated themselves exclusively to the creation of clothing collections and assigned the rest to others.
They came to us with the sketches of the clothes and gave us carte blanche for the design and creation of the accessories. There were some guidelines, but we had total freedom in the execution.
Today the most important brands have accessory designers and dedicated workshops where they directly create their collections; but it still happens that the style offices of the best-known fashion houses turn to us to draw inspiration from pieces in our archive, and re-propose them in their collections.
Over the years, and in a completely spontaneous way, we have made the choice to focus on our brand and our history; a choice that has probably been less profitable, but more rewarding, since we have always identified ourselves with our product.
Among other prizes and recognitions, in 2000 your atelier was included by the Municipality of Milan among the historical workshops of the city. Maria Vittoria Albani Scala, second generation in the management of the business, has also gained the title of “MAM – Master of Arts and Crafts”, from the Cologni Foundation. What do these awards mean to you?
We are very proud of the awards obtained and this year we also received the title of “Historical and Valuable Enterprise” from the Lombardy Region.
The true value of these awards lies in the fact that we are recognized that we have taken, and still follow, the right path, that one of quality, tradition and enhancement of Made in Italy.
In 2024 we will celebrate 80 years of activity, and I think I can say that the spirit, love and passion that animate our company have remained unchanged in all these years.
My mom used to say: “When you love your job, there are no Saturdays and Sundays”.
A statement that, as a little girl, left me puzzled, and I controversially asked her if she didn’t have a life outside her work! Then I understood, when it happened to me too, because when you love something with all yourself, you wish you had more and more time and energy to dedicate yourself to it.