Meet the designer Francesca Ruggiero of Kiaia jewellery

Meet Francesca Ruggiero of Kiaia jewellery. Having grown up in Italy near important archaeological sites she became intrigued by history. Her gold jewellery is set with ancient coins which she sources from all over the world

By Kim Parker

Jewellery designer Francesca Ruggiero of Kiaia jewellery grew up surrounded by important archaeological sites in Italy and became intrigued with history from an early age. After a career in finance, she changed tack and now crafts gold jewellery set with ancient coins, which she sources from all over the world. Her bold pieces have an earthy, talismanic appeal that feels particularly apt for our modern times. Here, she talks us through her inspirations, her love of hanging out in museums, and why being able to connect with our past stands us in good stead for the future.

Kiaia Medusa hoop earrings

Tell us how you got started in the jewellery industry even before launching Kiaia jewellery

Up until 2010, I was a financial trader. It was great, but after many years I started to feel like something was missing. At the time, I was living in France but working with China, so had to keep really long hours and travel non-stop, which definitely took its toll on me. So, I took a year off. I moved to New York and got a place at Sotheby’s Institute to do their art marketing course, without thinking about what I wanted to do at the end of it. I spent a year and a half in New York and loved it.

I’m passionate about good art and design. I collect ancient and vintage jewels and after Sotheby’s I started thinking about creating pieces of my own. I wanted to make something that people could wear every day, that would become a part of their daily life, just as jewellery was back in ancient times. In 2011 I moved to London and started looking for goldsmiths to work with – I’ve now got people I work with in London and in Naples, where was born and brought up, which is fantastic. That’s when my brand was born. Now, I know I’m on the right path – I get to work with wonderful clients from all over the world, and I’m extremely happy.

Kiaia Medusa flip ring

You’re known for your gold jewels which take ancient coins as their focal point. What inspired that?

I studied Classics at school, including old Latin and Greek, and I come from Naples, which has a rich history as an ancient Greek settlement, so I’ve always had a deep love of the past – particularly the ancient world. My favourite thing to do, whenever I’m in any city, is to spend time in a museum. We’re very lucky in London to have places like the V&A, The British Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery to visit. They’re wonderful spaces that surround you with beauty, where you can have a coffee and meet friends. They’re where I get a lot of my inspiration. In Italy, museums don’t feel quite the same – they’re expensive and hectic, so you don’t want to hang around when you’re there.

My obsession with antique coins I inherited from my grandfather, who used to collect them. He kept them in meticulously labelled albums that, as a child, I was never allowed to touch, even though I was completely fascinated by them. Now, as an adult, I can appreciate why. Each coin requires lots of research and one lost label means hours and hours of lost work. For me, there’s something romantic about these ancient artefacts. Holding them in your hand is like being able to time travel and connect with the people who may have held them thousands of years ago. With the same feelings, the same problems. It’s very reassuring.

Kiaia Medusa necklace

And they’re wonderful objects in themselves – beauty and art have always been important to humanity, even in our most primitive times, so each is engraved with fascinating details, like ears of barley. They’re all unique, which is part of their appeal.

I guess you could say I now also have an addiction to hunting for coins now. I have particular tastes – they have to have a clear engraving, and they have to be wearable. Nothing too heavy. It’s the thrill of the chase. I particularly love finding Medusa designs, the famous emperors, of course, and little creatures like owls and lions. I’m currently trying to buy some new coins I recently spotted at a friend’s house

How would you describe your aesthetic?

It’s quite pared back and clean. I adore using 22 and 24 carat gold, as people did in Greece and Rome, which always causes arguments with my goldsmiths because it’s very expensive, heavy and soft compared to 9 or 14 carat gold, but I always insist on it. There’s something so warm and natural about the way it glows and the way it sits on your body. It becomes almost alive on the skin. I want my jewellery to feel like almost a part of you, that you could even take swimming without fear of it turning your skin green. Just like jewellery was used like talismans back in ancient times. Back then, it was a big part of our emotional life.

I always start with the coins and design the pieces around them. Tiny coins lend themselves well to rings or earrings; larger coins look great as pendants, strung on leather, as they are heavier. I also occasionally use a sprinkling of diamonds, to bring some light and shine. I prefer old cut stones – ones I can preferably reconfigure from vintage jewels – as they have a more subtle, delicate shine.

Kiaia bangle design inspired by coins

You like making jewels that people can wear all day long. Which pieces do you personally wear all the time?

I wear a family ring that my mother gave me, as it has an emotional meaning for me. I also wear a little ring with a phallus design that I made a while ago. It was inspired by a piece I saw in the British Museum that they discovered in Pompeii – a tiny ring engraved with a phallus on it that a little child would have worn. Back then, it was seen as a symbol of strength, fertility, and good luck – it wasn’t as provocative or shameful as it might seem in our modern times. So, I thought, why not make one? My design is quite subtle and discreet. You can’t see what it is until you get up close.

When I’m not at home in Naples, I like to wear a little more jewellery – I’ll wear my chunky Unity rings, or jingling stacks of gold bangles. There’s something about the way women in the 80s and 90s used to wear big, bold jewellery that always appeals to me.

Kiaia Fascinus necklace

And what’s coming up next for you?

I’m continuing my fascination with Medusa, and designing some jewellery themed around snakes for spring/summer 2022. They have been used in art since humanity’s earliest days and are very symbolic. I also love what Bulgari used to do with their snake designs decades ago. I’m currently neck-deep in research at the moment, so watch this space.

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