Walking down the fabled streets of Murano, the glow of molten glass seems to emanate from every other doorway, beckoning boatloads of tourists like a warm hearth in winter. So it’s a shock to many of them when they learn that much of the glass they bought in local shops wasn’t made in Murano at all.
According to Promovetro, a consortium of authentic Murano glass blowers, 70% of the objects sold as Murano glass are in fact counterfeit, made in places such as China, as well as factories throughout Europe. Stores on the island and nearby Venice are routinely raided by authorities for selling the fake stuff. As a result, glassworks across the island are being shuttered at an alarming rate.
But is China really to blame? Or is Venice, after its own fair share of imitation over the centuries, merely reaping what it sowed?
Originally from the Middle East, glass became a powerful cultural symbol of Murano at the end of the 13th century. Before then, glassblowing was a cottage industry made up of individual glassworks scattered across nearby Venice. As the city grew in density, those furnaces posed a growing fire hazard, sparking several devastating conflagrations. So in 1291, the doge decreed that all glassblowers be relocated to the island of Murano, just north of the city. In the 15th century, as competition from Syria declined, Murano was on the rise and reached immense fame thanks to a native of the island, Angelo Barovier. His talent? He was the first to create glass as we’re now used to seeing it: clear and transparent.
Perfection came at a high cost. Throughout the centuries, strict regulations were put in place to protect trade secrets. Master glassblowers soon gained social status, and, in order to safeguard the tricks of the trade, even needed a special permit to leave the domains of the Serenissima. After all, the Venetians knew better than anyone how easy the technique was to rip off.
In the mid-15th century, porcelain imports to Italy were making Chinese artisans famous and rich, as the
process was unknown in the West. Spotting an opportunity, Murano’s glassmakers started using a milky-white glass, called lattimo, to imitate them. It wasn’t the same thing, but it was appealing enough to snatch untold numbers of buyers who may have otherwise bought the more expensive Chinese original.
“Copying is not a trademark of the Chinese,” says Chiara Squarcina, the director of the Glass Museum in Murano.
To some extent, foreign influences have actually helped promote Murano’s renown, especially in the last century. Ever since the 1960s, more and more international artists and designers have recognised the importance of the Murano glass tradition and have collaborated with major masters of the island, exporting their fame and their work worldwide.
But the Murano glass industry remains in decline. About 6,000 people worked in the glass industry in the 1990s. Just a decade later, the number plummeted to 2,000. Today it counts only about 1,100 workers.
Luciano Gambaro, the president of Promovetro, blames the rise of counterfeit glass, sold both in Venice to unsuspecting tourists, as well as to shoppers abroad.
“Distinguishing a piece made in Murano from something made elsewhere in Italy or abroad is always very difficult”, he concedes.
To help consumers identify the real thing, Promovetro issues a certificate of authenticity for products that belong to the consortium.
Others believe that the decline began in the second half of the 20th century, when many Murano glassblowers shifted their focus from high-end glass to affordable trinkets that any visitor could afford. By the 1980s, this new model that favored volume over quality saw the expansion of glass factories across the island. But the arrival of cheap souvenirs – googly-eyed farm animals, pocket-size dolphins, and imitation candies – were also easy for counterfeiters to mimic. Thus the eventual decline in the 21st century.
Squarcina points out that Murano’s legacy high-end glass designers, such as Barovier, Venini, and Seguso,
are at no risk of shuttering, and continue to enjoy success around the world. The future of the island ultimately depends on consumer appetite, she concludes.
“High-end and low-end products have always existed”, she adds. “Competitiveness in the markets depends on the buyer, and on whether we’ll keep on buying poorly executed and low quality objects. It’s a cultural matter.”