Glass blowers of Murano smashed by crisis

Their centuries-old workshops sell intricate curlicues of glass fantasy to the smartest shops in the world. But now the winds of crisis howling through the world are rattling the doors of the glass blowers of Murano.

"The glass-making district is on the point of collapse," says Davide Camuccio, secretary of FILCEM-CGIL, the union that represents the craftsmen. "The numbers [of sales] have been plummeting exponentially since the second half of 2007." The union reports that 300 of its 800 members in the island’s artisan glass-making workforce have been laid off. Once the Christmas boom is over that number is expected to rise to 600.

The cluster of islands north of the centre of Venice, collectively known as Murano, is home to 120 workshops large and small, all dedicated to turning out the sensual, delicate, richly coloured glassware that has been one of Venice's most celebrated products for centuries. But despite the gleaming showrooms and the glass Christmas tree in the main square, the mood in Murano is grim.

Gino Seguso, 70, has less reason to complain than most. His firm, Vetreria Archimede Seguso, was founded by his father in 1946, but Mr Seguso says his family have been making glass in Murano for 700 years. Today they sell to Tiffany's in New York, among many other upscale customers. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is one of their regulars, and visited the factory earlier this month. Corriere della Sera reported that he spent €165,000 in the factory’s shop on glass chandeliers, which he will hand out to the leaders of the world’s top industrialised countries when they assemble in Sardinia for the G8 summit next July.

With a hint of exasperation Mr Seguso says the Corriere report is wrong. "He didn't buy anything, he merely selected some samples of items he said he wanted to give as presents to his friends at the G8, and took them away and said he would inform us about his order in due course," he said. And the figure of 165,000 euros? "We didn't discuss the prices. Mr Berlusconi never discusses prices, he only wants the best."

If only there were more customers like him. But even a firm like Seguso is facing problems. "Our customers have not cancelled any orders already placed," he says carefully, "but they have postponed or slightly reduced their orders for next year. Normally our order book is full for the coming six months or one year, but at present it is empty. We, too, must live in this globalised world..."

"Even before the financial crisis some of the glass makers were in trouble," says FILCEM-CGIL in a new report on the industry's crisis. Today "Murano is in stormy water" and if the weather worsens "it risks going to the bottom."

The union reels of a list of the businesses which have been forced to take action: Vetrerie Venini and CVM, it reports, are the latest to take drastic measures, announcing that they will send the workforce home on 70 per cent pay early next year. Gino Cenedese has fired ("put in mobility" is the Italian euphemism) 16 workers out of 46, and its planned takeover by a firm in better shape is now uncertain because of the crisis, putting it in even greater difficulty.

And so the list goes on. The pre-Christmas sales boom has been a whimper this year, with a 25 per cent slump in sales. Americans constitute 60 per cent of the foreign buyers of Murano glass, and in 2008 their thoughts are elsewhere.

Murano’s glass industry has been written off many times in the past and today it is a fragile anachronism in a place that has become almost completely dependent on tourism. Yet the glass blowers are quite as central to Venice’s identity as the gondoliers.

Glassmaking was practiced in the Venetian lagoon as early as the 8th century; by the 13th century the glassmakers’ skills had improved hugely and their numbers had exploded, and it was at that point that the Doge forcibly moved them and their furnaces from central Venice to this little archipelago three kilometres to the north. The true reason for the diktat remains a matter of dispute: scholars disagree on whether it was to reduce the risk of fire, or to bottle the workmen up and prevent them selling their secrets to non-Venetians. Perhaps both considerations were important.

Whatever the reason, the move did them no lasting harm. Venice entered its golden age and the glassmakers accompanied it: the city-state’s mercantile connections to the Middle East brought in a wealth of glass-making techniques unknown to the rest of Europe.

But as Venice and its empire declined so did the fortunes of the artisans, challenged first by France and then, when Venice became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by Bohemia. With Venice’s incorporation into independent Italy, however, the industry's fortunes improved once again: with Venice increasingly important as a gateway to the outside world, both artistic influences and wealthy customers poured in, and the industry boomed.

But now the bad times are back with a vengeance. "The market gives," says Mr Seguso, "and the market takes away." Vetreria Archimede Seguso is confident it will survive - "I am very proud that my son has decided to continue in the trade," says Mr Seguso - but without a dramatic turnaround, much of Murano could go the way of the rest of Venice. The city has vowed to defend the glassblowers, but a new hotel is rising on the site of one workshop, and more are planned.

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