Writer Amanda Christmann

Photography Courtesy of Alessandra Donà

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]arly on an Arizona morning, the moon has already begun to rise over Vicenza, Italy where Alessandra Donà is beginning to relax after a busy day. From an office in the 500-year-old Palazzo Capra Ouerini, her eyes smile beneath rimless glasses as she talks about her work.

Sitting beside her is Marc Gianola. The esteemed Swiss entrepreneur and Donà’s business partner is casual yet poised, and he’s eager to talk about the quiet revolution that Donà’s namesake company has begun.

“A young woman does not want to wear jewelry her grandmother wore,” Donà begins, speaking melodically in Italian as Gianola translates. “We have to get away from this dusty image that surrounds cultured pearls.”

Gone are the days of Queen Elizabeth-style, double-strand pearl necklaces and matching pearl studs. In fact, pearls only hold about 2% to 3% of the jewelry market—a significant decrease since their peak in the 1950s. 

It’s fair to say that much of their decline has been due to the fact that, while jewelry design has become decidedly more edgy and contemporary, pearls have remained old-fashioned—even cliché.

That is, until Donà’s designs came along.

Donà is one of a handful of designers who is making waves within the pearl industry by introducing progressive alternatives to the organic gem’s tired trends. 

With two outstanding collections developed in only three years—and a very closely guarded third collection on the way—she’s already managed to infiltrate several European and Asian markets.

Even in Japan, the homeland of cultured pearls, Donà’s unique take on pearl jewelry has outsold many long-standing industry leaders.

Out with the Old

Twenty-five years ago, Donà began selling pearl jewelry for several international manufacturers. Over time, she developed an eye and an appetite for design.

The young jeweler set up shop in Vicenza, known for centuries as the jewelry capital of Italy, and world-renowned as home to many of the most distinguished jewelry-making families.

“Since she started to work in a company selling and buying pearls, she got hooked by the beauty of the pearl—no other gem, only the pearl,” said Gianola. “This makes us different from other suppliers. We only have pearl jewelry.”

From the beginning, Donà was doing something different. She was not interested in using inexpensive freshwater pearls. She felt strongly that women wanted quality—even rarity and exclusivity—in the jewelry they choose to wear.

She also recognized that today’s woman is attuned to individual expression. It doesn’t matter if a woman is from Belarus or Birmingham; the jewelry she chooses must represent who she is, and who she wants to be.

The pearl market had fallen nearly appallingly behind the times, and Donà knew it. She made it her work to fill the gap with something entirely new that the world had not yet seen.

In with the New

To start, Donà chose stunning black and white South Sea pearls as the foundation for her designs. Never dyed or treated, these large milky pearls have been dubbed Queens of Pearls, and Pearls of Queens.

South Sea pearls are much more rare than other pearl varieties. White South Sea pearls originate primarily in Australia, but can be found in Indonesia and the Philippines. They vary in color from a silvery white to a dark gold, and can be found with nuances of pink, cream, yellow, green or blue. 

Black South Sea pearls are the only naturally occurring black pearls in the world. While other black pearls are dyed or treated, these masterpieces of nature are cultured in the South Pacific and can range in shade from jet black to peacock green. Shades of gray, blue and brown organically enhance the color of many black South Sea pearls as well.

As Donà explains her selection process, she holds a gorgeous white pearl about the size of a pea between her thumb and index finger. Delicate yet bold, its creamy surface seems to dance between her fingers. 

“I want to show you something else,” she says as she retrieves an earring from her Friday Night collection. In this design, a delicate gold chain connects a single pearl stud to a helix loop. The result is a feminine yet punk-ish look. 

She removes the brilliantly lustered dark gray pearl from its stud, then with a slight of her hand, attaches the white pearl in its place.

“We’ve developed a system so that we can change the pearls from one piece of jewelry to another,” she says through translation. “We are the only ones who have that mechanism. You can take a pearl off of an earring and put it into a ring, and you can get it with a white pearl and a black pearl to change them when you’d like.”

Gianola adds proudly, “It’s an innovative element that nobody has. It’s a Swiss system.” 

“Our Friday Night collection is very modern, very aggressive,” Donà says. “It appeals to younger women—and also to women 40 to 70 years old who want new and innovative designs. They still want to be in style, and they love the luxury and quality of Italian jewelry, so they wear Alessandra Donà.

“Even our classic Timeless collection is changing that image with a much more contemporary feel.”

The biggest hurdle the company has faced so far is not in finding customers; it’s in finding sellers who are willing to take a chance on an avant-garde take on pearls. That’s changing, however. 

Not only are European and Asian stores that carry Alessandra Donà pearls discovering a willing market; they’re selling more pearls than they have in decades.

Donà’s next target is the American market. She has only just begun to reach out to select jewelry stores in the United States. Grace Renee Gallery in Carefree will be among the first to showcase Alessandra Donà jewelry.

The partnership is timely. In November, Grace Renee Gallery will feature Alessandra Donà’s Timeless and Friday Night pearl jewelry collections, including at a special Italian Designer Jewelry Weekend event Nov. 8–10.

Donà’s latest private collection will debut in January, and will be part of a February featured event at Grace Renee Gallery. The Carefree location will be among a very exclusive few in the U.S. to showcase the line.

As for Donà, her designs will no doubt continue to make waves in the jewelry industry. She is creating something new and exciting, and there seems to be no limit to how far she can go.

The world, after all, is her oyster.


Italian Designer Jewelry Weekend

Nov. 8–10 | 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Fri.; wine and appetizers from 4–8 p.m. | 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat. and Sun. 

Grace Renee Gallery | Located in Historic Spanish Village | 7212 E. Ho Hum Rd., Carefree | 480-575-8080 | gracereneegallery.com