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A Malaise in Murano Glass

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The following is a sad story from Reuters new agency, which I read in the Report on Business Saturday morning. Essentially, it describes how badly the economic downturn is hitting the Italian artisans who make the beautiful Murano glass so well known as a symbol of Venice and the Veneto region. Some won't survive; others will be forced to produce only very expensive items for narrow, niche markets.

It really struck a chord because one of the things I love about Italy is the opportunity to see -- and sometimes acquire -- a little bit of the beautiful, hand-crafted products that are created with great love and care in parts of Italy. Markets are full of the cheap knockoffs, but it is still possible to see behind that smokescreen to the places where quality and originality still matter.

But, as Reuters notes in the following, the encroachment of mass production is steadily worsening. (Photo note: the first photo of a Forcola style vase from Murano; the second is a hand-made glass in purple and white. Both from the website of muranoglass. com.)

Venetian artisans struggle to reshape future. (Reuters)

Murano glass has long been prized for its rich colours, beauty and sophistication, but the global financial crisis is pushing the 700-year-old craft close to extinction.

Many orders are on hold, layoffs are rising and some furnaces are cold in a downturn symptomatic of the woes of manufacturers both small and large in Italy, Europe's fourth-biggest economy.

Even before the crisis bit last year, the Venetian island was slammed by a strong euro that chased away free-spending Americans and others and by competition from Chinese and other producers.

In the last five years, sales at some companies have dropped by half, and the work force has shrunk to 1,000 from about 5,000. The current downturn threatens the existence of Murano, even though two or three companies could remain, said Davide Camuccio, head of the Filcem-CGIL glass and chemical workers' union in Venice. "This could be a mortal blow."

Artisans have been making glass on Murano, an island close to Venice in its tranquil lagoon, since the 13th century. Long a key centre of European glassmaking, its prized products ranged from chandeliers through jewellery to tableware.

Perhaps the island's most famous technique is the "retortoli," where opaque or white threads form a spiral, especially valued on Venetian goblets.

Sales have fallen as much as 15 per cent in recent years, and exports were about €250-million ($400-million) to €300-million in 2007, he said. "As of the middle of 2008, it would be much, much lower."

Murano is having to shift to higher-margin, one-of-a-kind items and venture into new markets in Asia, Russia and the Middle East where the brand is less known. Next to roaring furnaces, sparks flew as master glass maker Simone Cenedese used a board to shape a fiery orange globe into a custom-made sculpture last week. "The future of Murano is definitely that of excellence, of special pieces, not mass production," he said.


Comments (8)

Interesting article. I had no idea that things were that serious. When I was on Murano, I saw several posters and also signs in shop windows asking people to "Buy Murano, not knock-offs" and explaining how to tell the difference.

But the vast majority of glass for sale in the historic center of Venice seems to be knock-offs and I wonder why they allow it (they've put more effort into trying to stop the knock-off purse salesmen, fining tourists who buy those, etc.).

Thanks for the article,Sandra. I guess I have not realized either that things were that bad in Italy too.

Those pieces are beautiful! It is so sad to read that this artistry may slowly die off. I also understand why Venice does not do more to prevent the knock-offs.

barb cabot:

This is a very sad story. Somehow even as we suffer I just want to believe places like Murano go on and on just like they have done forever...I want it all to be the same for generations to come...a kind of fairytale place beyond our everyday surroundings. Sad. I don't want Murano to end.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, oh no this makes me sad to hear how the economic downturn is affecting this famous and very special art form. On my first trip to Venice, I purchased a set and treasure it so much.

And to think that so many people who have worked for years making these special Murano Glasses have lost their jobs is very sad to me. I really hope that things improve for everyone's sake. We cannot lose this beautiful art form.

Thanks for writing this post Sandra.

dana:

Sandra -

This goes hand-in-hand with an article I read this morning in an Italian newspaper about how severely tourism is dropping in the country overall, as compared to other countries. With that, and the additional economic factors, it's not looking good.

All we can do is do our part by going to Italy as often as possible, and encouraging others to do so as well...

Dana

sandrac:

Annie, Girasoli -- that's such a good point! Why do shops in Venice carry so many products that are clearly cheap knock-offs? I understand the arguments, that stores have to give customers what they want, and so often that's cheap souvenirs. Yet they're destroying the long-term viability of their own business. If there is nothing authentic left in Venice, won't the tourist trade drain away?

I'm very interested in the idea of educating people in what is authentic Murano glass and why it means something. (Could be a great blog post for a Venetian expert such as you, Annie!)

Candi, I think the economy is looking very gloomy for Italy. As Dana says, it is helpful when we Italian lovers are able to travel there and support local industry to the extent possible.

Barb, it is really sad to think that beautiful longstanding traditions are being lost. I realize there are partnerships with other glassmakers and that industry constantly evolves. But it still seems something beautiful is being lost....

Kathy, I haven't yet been to Murano or bought any glass. I'd love to see what you purchased -- they must be special pieces, with great memories attached!

Anne:

Oh that is sad. All I bought when we visited Murano was a wine topper, but would hate to see these artisans lose their livelihood.

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