by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pino Signoretto
Pino Signoretto in his workshop on Murano

A Discriminating Market

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 1 June 1995


When Japan's 'Bubble' economy burst in the early 90s, sales there of Venetian glass, which until then had seemed in a constant state of expansion, took a dramatic downward slide. Having topped 15 billion lire in 1990, by 1993 exports to Japan had fallen to less than a third of that figure.

Ironically, this period has coincided with an unprecedented upsurge of serious interest in European glass in general and Venetian glass in particular in Japan, which could yet be good news for Murano's glass makers in the longer term - for those, at least, prepared to meet this increasingly discriminating market's rigorous requirements.

'There is now much more widespread knowledge about glass than there was in Japan a few years ago,' said Mario Bonicelli, a Venetian, Japanese-speaking glass consultant, who spent many years in Japan before returning to his native city. 'When the Japanese become interested in a subject they like to go deeply into it, and much more glass is being manufactured in Japan, so the ability to distinguish between different types of glass has developed a great deal.'

Bonicelli is also the European representative of a major project that should further increase Japanese awareness of Venetian glass - the new Ukai Glass Museum in Hakone, near Mount Fuji, due to open next spring, financed by the glass-lover Sadao Ukai, restaurant owner and producer of Tajima beef, and curated by Yoshimitsu Tsuneo, Japan's pioneer glass scholar, author of a six-volume encyclopedia on the subject and director of the Tokyo Glass Art Institute, where young Japanese artists are trained in the history and full range of glass-making techniques.

With an area of 32,000 square metres and over 500 pieces of Venetian glass dating from Roman times to the present day, the museum promises to be the most important privately-owned glass museum in the country. 'The collection has been built up over an number of years, mainly from purchases in Italy, Germany, France and Britain,' said Bonicelli. 'Some very rare and exceptional pieces have been secured for the museum, and there will be examples on show that you cannot even find in Venice's glass museums.'

Speaking of the downturn in the commercial success of Venetian glass, Bonicelli said that some Murano glass makers, although previously enjoying a boom in sales, had damaged their future prospects in Japan by charging excessive prices and failing to control the quality of their products tightly enough.

'Some producers still do not understand that to succeed in Japan the pieces must be just right. I've found myself, for example, with a glass master who has produced a series of six drinking glasses. And one of them is slightly crooked. When I point this out, the maker says: 'But it's hand-made.' And I have to explain that to Japanese eyes it's simply badly-made.'

Art-glass expert Louise Berndt, who last year opened her San Nicolo gallery on the Grand Canal, confirmed that many makers underestimated Japanese demands for a meticulous finish. 'For a westerner the fact that a piece is a little distorted can prove that it really is hand-made, and so more precious. But the Japanese expect a craftsman to display his skills by making a perfect product,' she said.

Berndt previously managed the factory of Loredano Rossin, a Murano glass artist whose works were selling well in Japan before his recent untimely death in an accident. 'Japanese buyers of art glass are just as concerned about the quality of the workmanship as buyers of commercial glass,' she said.

'They examine everything in great detail, and will be put off by the most minute air bubble, scratch or other imperfection. The fact that a piece might be produced as part of a series - which would devalue it to a western collector - is not a problem for Japanese buyers. But each single piece must be perfect in itself.'

Because of the high cost of distribution and transport and the elaborate arrangements necessary for the presentation and packaging of prestige products, quality glass products usually cost around three times what they would if you bought them in Venice, she said. However, this did not generally bother Japanese customers, since they knew that if they bought from a reputable outlet at home, not only would the product have been intensely vetted, but also it could be taken back if they decided they did not like it.

Japanese glass manufacturers have also been showing an interest in importing Venetian glass to sell alongside their own products. One of these is Kenzo Asahara, whose great-grandfather nearly a hundred years ago founded the Kitaiji glass firm, in Otaru on the island of Hokkaido, to make oil lamps and fishing floats. Asahara imports a wide range of Murano glass products, many of which are sold to visiting holidaymakers, and Murano glass now counts for 20 per cent of his total sales.

Asahara said that the drinking glasses and tableware were popular because the Japanese liked to buy pieces that could be used as well as serve as ornaments. A hardy perennial, he said, was still what the Japanese call the 'Summertime Glass' made popular by the 1955 David Lean film set in Venice, starring Katharine Hepburn, in which she buys an old red Murano goblet from a seductive antique dealer played by Rossano Brazzi. The film turns up regularly on Japanese television, and even young people are enthusiastic buyers of 'Summertime' glasses - perhaps also, said Asahara, because bright red is regarded as a joyful, festive color in Japan.

Meanwhile, despite the downturn in overall sales, some of Venice's leading glass masters and artists have won substantial commissions. Pino Signoretto has just completed an order for 13 large glass fountains for the Metrohills 'Americana' hotel-theater-sports complex on the island of Ise-Shima, about an hour from Osaka, which is due to open early next year.

Signoretto has boldly and amusingly addressed the hotel's name with a series of entertaining sculptures, including a Coca-Cola, Statue of Liberty, and Cowboy fountain, complete with tinted transparent glass saddle, boots and ten-gallon hat, and the paradoxical 'Arizona' fountain, with glass cactus and an artfully-crafted skeleton steer's skull.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024