Jewel In The Crown: The Shop That Mrs Prada And A$AP Rocky Adore

It’s a bright and sunny October morning in Milan and the city is settling back into the regular rhythm of urban life: the Fashion Week train left town for Paris seven days earlier.

The exterior of Pennisi

On the corner of Via Montenapoleone and Via Manzoni, the tram rattles by in its uninterrupted hum, suited executives fly by on Vespas, an older lady with a dachshund is being handed four perfect hydrangea stems from the flower stand and a couple of well-dressed girlfriends – one in an orange suit and RayBans, the other in a printed dress and green Bottega Veneta sunnies – puff on cigarettes as they walk and talk. Something catches their eyes, though, and they stop. They stand, looking into a window, for a moment, lowering their specs and whispering conspiratorially, before moving on, gesticulating enthusiastically with their hands.

From left: 20th century Mario Buccellati engraved silver and malachite portable travel altar, antique coral cameo parure; 19th century, French antique gold, silver, rose-cut diamond and natural pearl bracelet. A yellow gold, silver, diamond, natural pearls and blue enamel bracelet, circa 1850.

This scene is as familiar to this salubrious intersection of the city as the place that caught their eye, for it was the window of Gioielleria Pennisi, aka Milan’s most celebrated jewellers, and a defining feature of this junction for the last 50 years.

Sitting beneath the Grand Hotel et de Milan, Pennisi is the city’s oldest and most celebrated jewellery boutique. Less shop, more institution, it is home to some of the rarest jewels from the 18th to mid-19th centuries and it is here where the world’s most discerning jewellery aficionados pay frequent pilgrimages to find something they know they won’t find elsewhere.

It’s also where the fashion pack famously gets its most treasured bling from. Remember a young Kate Moss photographed by Craig McDean in the late Nineties with an antique pair of earrings flying from her ears? She picked those up at Pennisi in between shows.What about A$AP Rocky’s 18th-century earring and necklace setor Rihanna’s art deco platinum and diamond bracelets they were snapped wearing on the Gucci frow? All sourced at Pennisi. That’s before we even start on the collection of its most loyal fashion client, Miuccia Prada, who has amassed her antique jewellery collection from them over the last few decades.

Inside this landmark, it’s always fashion week. On the morning of 10’s visit, the room– all velvet-lined cabinets and lush red carpet – is a hive of activity with the phone frequently ringing in the background and the doorbell pinging with deliveries and friends popping by.

A couple of minutes after our arrival, the glamourous gallerist Francesca Kaufmann, of Kaufmann Repetto, walks in and is embraced with il bacetto (the two-cheek kiss) by Emanuele Ferreccio-Pennisi. He’s the third-generation Pennisi who, along with his uncle and auntie, Guido and Paola, his mother Marina and his cousin Gabrielle are in the boutique every day sourcing the next special find, appraising private collections and discussing what they should buy and sell. “Francesca has one of the coolest contemporary art galleries in Milan,” says Ferreccio-Pennisi. “She represents our modern customer.”

 The Pennisi family: Marina, Guido, Gabrielle, Emanuele and Paola

Kaufmann is missing a loop of her bracelet, which she wanted to wear to an important event that evening to promote Pennisi to her clients, but quickly abandons her errand to sing the praises of the family when she realises she’s walked into an interview. “They’re the best. I like jewellery to have a history and Emanuele knows the story so well [behind the pieces],” she enthuses nodding towards our host and designated family spokesperson.The previous week, she tells me, she had brought along Euphoria actor Colman Domingo, who chose two antique rings with rubies from the boutique. “Artists really love what they do and [since in] America it’s harder to source [antique jewellery], Americans get crazy for Pennisi.”

As Kaufmann turns to greet another friend, who has arrived on a separate enquiry, we settle back into our chat. “This is very Italian, eh?” laughs Ferreccio-Pennisi of the small-town spirit and spontaneous revelry. “It’s like a marketplace!”

It’s a gracious statement that perfectly captures the humble welcome that is as much synonymous with this world-famous boutique as it speaks to its beginnings. Ferreccio-Pennisi’s grandfather Giuseppe founded the boutique having relocated to Milan after the war from Catania in Sicily. “Catania was, let’s say, the Milan of the south, pulling industry where there were a lot of wealthy and elegant people, so my grandfather started dealing in diamonds,” he says. “He realised something was changing when he started seeing in the offices in Sicily that a lot of noblemen would dismantle the old jewellery.Instead, he wanted to preserve it and so his passion for collecting baroque jewellery from the 18th century, as well as art deco [pieces] started from there. In the 1970s, everything was very modern and lines were neat; his choices were very precise.”

A frequent visitor to Milan to sell diamonds, Pennisi Sr. found himself on the junction of Via Montenapoleone and Via Manzoni one day in 1971 and an idea started to form. “He told me that he was walking around Milan and found this spot. [Hespent] two or three days standing here and checking where people were crossing the road. He liked the building and [being attached] to the hotel made it a brilliant place to sell antique jewellery.”

In those days, the corner was more local than luxe and while the hotel – then known as the Verde – was always an exclusive spot, the surrounding area was“completely different”.“We lived around here and I used to go to school over there,” he says, gesturing to behind the building that now houses the Armani Hotel. “We had the grocers, the butchers, the bakery where we used to go and buy bread. These days nobody lives here, it’s a completely different scenario.”

As local businesses started to move out over the next few decades, paving the way for luxury brands, Pennisi stayed put, building a reputation as the number-one purveyor of antique jewellery and passing on his passion for sourcing and collecting antique jewels to his sons and grandsons.

From left: Paola Pennisi; Gabrielle Pennisi holding a yellow gold and silver flower brooch with old-cut androse-cut diamonds, circa1860 and a diamond bird pin; Marina Pennisi, daughter of the founder; Emanuele Ferreccio-Pennisi

“For me, it’s always been a fantastic job because I had the opportunity to study, and knowledge is very important,”says Ferreccio-Pennisi, who joined the business in 2003as a 24-year-old. “Jewellery is very related to the history of society. There’s a direct connection between how people were perceived and then it’s also very technical.You have to study gemmology and understand what you can do with different materials. You have to touch jewellery because when a jewel is refined, you can feel it, it’s very instinctive.”

As if on cue, Gabrielle walks past with a tray of jewels headed back to the cabinets. “Look at this, this is very interesting,” says Ferreccio-Pennisi, seizing a long sparkling necklace. “This is the necklace that Naomi wore to Fashion Week,” he says with a smile. “It’s an art deco piece made after 1925 – when it’s all white, it’s made after 1925 – and this was exhibited at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in 1925 [in Paris] from which art deco got its name. She chose to wear it short for the Hugo Boss show. She’s one of our customers from the 1990s and she’s always very kind.”

Campbell is among a select group of people who Pennisi loans its jewels to. While it goes without saying that with such esteemed clientele comes untold levels of discretion, Ferreccio-Pennisi does admit to saying no to certain people.

“It’s never personal, just maybe someone who is not so… Pennisi,” he says with a smile. “That’s not easy to define because it’s not just a matter of the way you dress orone’s personality. I’ve always appreciated people who show us an appreciation for our research. We are not just a brand, but a family business, so even if it’s a big name or a superstar, that they show an interest in what we do [is important]. It’s not just about diamonds.”

Paola, immaculately dressed in a pastel-pink Moschino skirt suit, has joined us in the corner of the room. Having worked in the family business since day one, I’m keen to know who her standout client has been. She doesn’t drop a beat: Mrs. Prada.

“She’s fantastic,” enthuses Ferreccio-Pennisi. “She always has a pair of antique earrings and a bangle. She had this peculiar way, I realised, of making her short necklaces longer with a ribbon on the back so she can personalise things. She was a pioneer in this world, she was the first one in the fashion system coming with Franca and Carla Sozzani and Manuela Pavesi and realising this was something. They started in the ’70s, so I imagine they have everything in their collection!”

The family working together

The Pennisi family collection has amassed its fairshare of keepsakes, too. For all the pieces they sell (Pennisi Sr.’s motto was “buy, sell, regret”), there are pieces they will never part with.

The Alfredo Ravasco collection, made between 1930 and 1950, which is on display and open to the public, is one such example. A presentation ring given by the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph as a special prize to students and luminaries and a cameo bracelet given by Napoleon to his biographer during his exile on the island of Saint Helena are others. Elsewhere, an Egyptian Revival platinum set in its original box and chains full of charms made in Naples in the 18th century to ward off evil spirits also hold a special place in the safe.

“It’s not just items that [have come from] nobility and have historical importance, but charming pieces, too,” says Ferreccio-Pennisi of the collection that will go on display in a special exhibition this month, a belated celebration of Pennisi’s 50th anniversary in January this year. Pieces from its recent hairpin collaboration with Milan-based influencer Jenny Walton, its first foray into creating rather than curating, will also be on display.

From left: art deco diamond rings; the Pennisi family; an antique parure in its original box; Guido and Gabrielle Pennisi

here is, he says, always a family discussion about what is sold and what is kept, usually overSunday lunch, which the family still gather for every week without fail. For example, the vases in the shop are under specific orders from its founder never to be sold.In fact, the only thing that has been updated in the shop itself is the carpet and, understandably, the safe. Looking around as we finish our chat, it is both impressive and remarkable that such an intimate operation continues to exist. It’s something that one might assume would have had its fair share of propositions over the years.

“Some bigger jewellery businesses maybe wanted the location at some points but, honestly, no one has ever come and said, ‘we want to buy your brand’,”says Ferreccio-Pennisi. “We also could have opened another three or four shops and split the family indifferent places, but it’s a choice we made not to do that. Running a shop is a lifestyle, it’s not a job, and so for us it was natural to [stay together]. We’re still family-run and after 53 years [of experience] it takes a lot to be taught.”It’s a passion that’s unique to Pennisi, whose passionate commitment to the integrity of his family can be felt all around this place. It’s no wonder that the company us a jewel in the crown for both its customers and the city itself.

Guido changes the window display


Photographer ANNA STOKLAND


Shopping cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping