Glassblowers from Murano have survived pandemics and plagues. To beat low-priced Asian competition, they switched to highly valued artistic creations. However, rising energy prices are threatening their economic model.
There are still dozens of furnaces on the lagoon island, where Venetian rulers transferred the glassblowing process 700 years ago. They must be burning continuously or the expensive crucible will burst. The global methane market has risen fivefold since Oct. 1. This means that the glass-blowers will have to make losses on any orders they fill.
Gianni De Checchi (president of Confartiginato, Venice’s association for artisans) stated that “people are desperate.” “If this continues, and we don’t find solutions for the sudden and abnormally high gas prices, then the entire Murano glass industry will be in serious trouble.”
Simone Cenedese’s medium-sized glassblowing company uses 12,000 cubic meters (420,000 feet) of methane per month to keep his furnaces humming at temperatures of over 1,000° Celsius (1,800 Fahrenheit), 24 hours a days. They close down once per year in August for annual maintenance.
On a fixed-price contract, his monthly bills range between 11,000 and 13,000 euros per month. The contract expired September 30. Cenedese, now exposed to market volatility projects a rise in methane prices to 60,000 euros ($70,000), in October as the natural gas market continues to be impacted by increasing Chinese demand, uncertain Russian supply, and low European stockpiles.
Cenedese and other artisans must now consider the insurmountable rise in energy costs when they fulfill orders that promised to lift them from the 2020 pandemic crisis.
We cannot raise prices that have been established. Cenedese, who is a third-generation glassblower and took over his father’s business, said that it means that for at least two more months, we will be working at a loss. We sell decorative items for the home, not necessities. If the prices are too high, there won’t be any more orders.
Cenedese is contemplating closing down one of his furnaces in order to address the crisis, as are others on the island. The broken crucible will be worth 2,000 euros. It will also slow down production and make it impossible to fulfill pending orders.
The five glass-blowers work with unspoken choreographed precision and speed to complete an order of 1,800 ornaments decorated with golden flakes bound for Switzerland.
The process begins with a hot molten blob at the end of the wand. He then rolls it over the gold leaf and gives it to the maestro. He then heats the form in another oven before gently blowing it into the wand. The molten red color is still evident when the glassblower cuts the orb from the wand. A second glassblower grabs the form with prongs to give it the final flourish. This is a pointed end that was created by a small amount of molten glass, applied by an apprentice.
As the dance progresses, another begins, weaving and bobbing into empty spaces. They can create 300 ornaments per day together, from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m.
Davide Cimarosti (56), a master glassblower, said, “No machine could do what we do.”
Many decades ago, Murano glassblowers switched from wood ovens that produced uneven results to methane. This produces the delicate crystal clarity that makes these creations so prized. It is also the only gas that glassblowers can use by law. They are caught in the global commodities Catch-22.
For now, artisans hope that the international market will calm by the end the year. However, some analysts fear volatility could continue into the spring. The island’s economy as well as individual businesses could be seriously damaged if this happens.
While the Rome government offered some relief to families in Italy facing high energy prices, it has not provided any substantial assistance to Murano glassblowers. Their small size and energy intensity makes them vulnerable. Next week, the artisans’ lobby will meet with members of parliament to try and seek direct government aid. De Checchi stated that this is possible under new EU rules established after the pandemic.
The islanders are worried about losing their artistic heritage, which has made it synonymous with artistic excellence.
The sector has already seen a decline from a large industry employing thousands of people in the 1960s and 1970s, to a network mostly of small and medium-sized artisans with a total of around 300 glassblowers. Venice’s glassblowing heritage dates back to 1,200 years. It has been handed down from fathers to sons for over a thousand generations on Murano. It is difficult to attract young people to its workshops, where temperatures can reach up to 60 degrees Celsius (140 Fahrenheit) in summer, despite its small size and creative rewards.
Luciano Gambaro co-owner of Gambaro & Tagliapietra stated, “The value this tradition, history, and culture is priceless. It goes beyond the financial worth of the Murano glass industry in Murano.” “A gas issue can’t end over 1,000 years of culture.”