Financial crisis threatens Murano glassmakers

Mon Feb 2, 2009 12:59pm EST
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By Ian Simpson

VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - Murano glass has long been prized for its rich colors, 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 workforce 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 center of European glassmaking, its prized products ranged from chandeliers through jewelry 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.   Continued...

<p>Artisans check the finish of a vase at the Linea Vetro Murano glass furnace on the island of Murano near Venice January 27, 2009. Murano glass has been prized through the centuries for its refined beauty, but the credit crisis is threatening to shatter the fading Italian craft industry. Relentless competition from China and other producers and a strong euro that killed the U.S. market for its fine glass are the key culprits in cutting sales in half and the loss of about 75 percent of the sector's jobs in the last few years. But the financial crisis has dried up even the reduced sales at the glassmakers that line the canals of the Venetian island of Murano and raised stark questions about the future of the 700-year-old industry itself. REUTERS/Chris Helgren</p>