Clusters of jewels Featured

The pockets of Italian enterprise that have thrived for a thousand years or more


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01 August 2013

 Cadore is an area in north-eastern Italy where people have been raising stock for centuries. They didn't have much to do when the cattle were in the sheds and the snow was down in the winter, and so they began using horn to make combs for women. In the 14th century they diversified into spectacle frames, incorporating the lenses made in nearby Murano. As the years went by, they harnessed the energy from mountain streams, and began to industrialize. Today, one of these cottage industries has become Safilo, with an annual turnover of over a billion euro.

Safilo is part of a business cluster, many companies all working in the same sector and in the same geographical area. An important role is played by Luxottica, the largest eyewear manufacturer in the world, whose headquarters is in Agordo, near Belluno. This business cluster helps give Italy a share of about 27% of the global eyewear market, and about half of the entire world market share for sunglasses.

In actual fact, the story goes back even further, to about 1200, when Venetian glassblowers were making a lot of unique products, including lenses for reading. The rulers of the city decided to protect their monopoly by keeping the techniques secret, and so ordered the glassmakers to move en masse to the isle of Murano, inventing the excuse of the fire risk represented by glassblowing kilns in a city with a lot of timber bridges. At the same time, the wood burnt in the kilns had to be imported from Cadore, which was how the farmers began their sideline in spectacle frames.

It's difficult to keep something good (and profitable) a secret. The emperors of China put a death penalty on the export of silkworms, and it was only in 552 A.D. that two visiting monks hid a few eggs in their bamboo rods and smuggled them back to Europe. In Italy, Como became one of the centres for silk production, particularly when, in about 1480, Duke Ludovico il Moro ordered the local farmers to plant thousands of mulberry trees, whose leaves are the silkworms' favourite food. The city's reputation for silk has survived until today, even though the yarn itself is now imported from China and Brazil. Clerici Tessuto is one of Como's luxury silk textile manufacturers, marketing its products all over the world and enjoying growth after some difficult years. The Como silk business cluster reported increasing exports for 2012, and amazingly, one of the fastest-growing markets is China!

Como and Cadore are just two examples of Italy's business clusters. In total, there are over a hundred, involving about 275,000 companies and about 1.5 million employees. Particularly important are the clusters dedicated to textiles, such as the Biella district. Here, in the Alpine foothills of Piedmont, the abundance of rivers provided the water essential for spinning, weaving and dyeing wool, and, in the 19th century, the energy for industrialization. Enlightened entrepreneurs – such as the Zegna family in Trivero – understood the importance of their skilled workers, giving them instruction and protection well before the onset of trade union relations. Still today, Ermenegildo Zegna dedicates massive commitment to its corporate social responsibility, protecting the vast natural area of Oasi Zegna, and enriching the local environment through the events organized by Fondazione Zegna.

Another area important for Italy's industrial production is footwear. The country accounts for 40% of all footwear made in the EU, and it is by far the largest manufacturer in Europe. There are several business clusters in this sector, one in the Marche region, where the companies include many top brands such as Alberto Guardiani, Roberto Botticelli, Prada, Nero Giardini, and the Tod's group. The many factory shops in the Fermo-Macerata area make it a sort of pilgrimage destination for women.

It's a fascinating subject, with countless examples: leather goods in Tuscany, gold jewellery in Vicenza and Valenza, fast cars in Emilia-Romagna, straw hats in Montappone... Sometimes the reasons for the existence of a business cluster are hard to fathom. For example, in a small area around Manzano, a town in north-eastern Italy, they make 80% of all the chairs made in Italy, and half of the entire European production. Why? Could it be related to the other major product of the area, wine? One of the slogans utilized by the consortium is 'Take a seat...'

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