Venice's 'couturiers of glass' stand test of time

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The Independent Travel

With a clientele that includes crowned heads, Archimede Seguso Vetreria, a stalwart of Murano's storied glassmakers, has no need to change its formula for success.

"We buck the trend. We work traditionally, everything by hand," said Gino Seguso, son of the late Archimede, the solid glass sculptor famed for his stylised animals, and generations of Segusos before him on the outlying Venetian island of Murano.

"We consider ourselves the 'couturiers' of glass," said Seguso, whose atelier collaborates with top international artists, designers and architects and caters for royalty, heads of state and the likes of Tiffany's, a loyal client for 60 years.

The guest book holds the compliments of Queen Sirikit of Thailand, King Juan Carlo and Queen Sofia of Spain and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano among other notables.

The glassmaker's enormous creations lend prestige to places like the lobby of the Veneto Bank headquarters or add extra opulence to the swank Hotel Metropole on Venice's Grand Canal near St Mark's Square.

That grandeur makes a stark contrast to the rustic Murano workshop, where a 100-year-old furnace was fired up.

Though dressed in an impeccable suit, Seguso lifted a plate off the furnace to reveal the blinding yellow heat inside, and used a long iron tool to pull out a glowing red lump of molten glass, waving it in a gentle circle as cooling strands of glass spiraled to the floor.

The workshop was set up in 1948, shortly after Archimede Seguso left the family firm to create his own brand.

He left an indelible mark on glassmaking, having started out as a teenager and worked until six months before his death in 1999 aged 90.

"In the 1920s my father was considered the maestro for animals," Gino Seguso told AFP, adding that he returned to the speciality in the late 1950s.

The older Seguso is also credited with developing the technique of embedding filigree inside his creations as well as for his lacework, a technique known as Merletto, the Italian word for lace.

In the showroom bursting with chandeliers, vases and objets d'art, as well as a glass menagerie of rabbits, ducks or fish and other figurines, Seguso, who himself joined the family business in 1959, ticks off the decades reflected in his father's rendition of the female form.

During Italy's pre-war fascist period, which harkened back to the Roman empire, the feminine figure was more classical, with a smaller head and fuller body, he said. Moving on to the 1970s, he held up another nude, this one tall and thin.

Seguso dreams of building a museum devoted to his father's work and has approached Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, for the project.

Today the atelier's 30 craftsmen - all local except for one Sri Lankan and one Russian - work at their own pace, producing no more than three or four objects a day.

Seguso's three daughters Emanuela, Francesca and Barbara are in charge of jewellery and accessories under the brand Segusissime, with clients including US First Lady Michelle Obama.

"The idea of making glass jewellery came to them in a flash when they were in their forties," said Seguso, in his early 70s.

While aware of the threat of copies mass-produced on "terra firma" - meaning mainly China - Seguso, whose pedigree as a glassmaker goes back to 1397, was untroubled.

"You can tell the difference. If they want to copy us, let them. We can always create something new and distinctive," he said.

Archimede Seguso Vetreria is a purveyor of "slow glass," Seguso joked. "We will stick to our tradition of creating by hand with a touch of fantasy."

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