Marcopoloni was founded in 2003 after Emi had an epiphanic moment in a major retail chain bookstore ...
I was perusing the stationery section when a shelf of leather knickknacks caught my attention: journals, book-ends,
pencil holders and the like. But upon inspecting them closely, I was quickly disappointed by the mass-produced,
impersonal qualities of these items. It suddenly dawned on me that they were mere "things", objects with an intended
use and nothing more. Each of these were presented in clean but unremarkable commercial packaging with
Italian-sounding product names printed on them ... in a deceitful attempt, I presumed, to evoke some sort of
emotional correlation between them and Italian leather and/or Italian craftsmanship.
Well, the only emotion that was invoked in me was sadness ... I was sad that these things were being
mass-produced by the thousands, half-way around the world, probably by underpaid workers who would have no
use or appreciation for such things themselves, likely even resented them, and rightfully so. I was sad that
they were being marketed by those who only care about words like landed costs and profit margins, and whose only
goal is to sell. And I was sad that these were being bought by the "consumer" who chooses not to think about
these things. (Admittedly, I used to be one of those consumers). This moment changed my life.
That night, my then-boyfriend Daniele and I were glued to our computer monitors all night and into the morning
as we explored the world wide web in search for ... well, we weren't really sure what we were searching for,
only that we wanted to be inspired by something that is the opposite of those "things" I saw in the bookstore.
We knew we wanted handmade products by artisans who made really nice stuff. We recognized that a product handmade
by a skilled artisan is going to be far more meaningful than a canned-made, mass-marketed product. But we also
knew that there must be more to it than just making a product by hand. In fact, some of the handmade products
we were uncovering were not all that inspiring. Fortunately, we soon stumbled upon a remarkable artisan called
Gianni Raineri, who became Marcopoloni's Supplier #1. After almost three years of doing business together, Daniele finally
got to visit Gianni in 2006:
Gianni drove more than an hour from Messina to Catania to pick me up at the airport. Yet, he was not in a
hurry: when I made a comment about the beauty of the landscape near Taormina he became my tour guide and showed me the beach,
the coves, and the old town before making our way back to Messina. (He confessed that one of his dreams was to become an eco-tour guide, so he can show off the beauty of his natural surroundings.) Then, he took me to my hotel where the owner wouldn't
let me pay on the account of being Gianni's guest. I was given a beautiful ocean front room with a panoramic view of the
Tyrrhenian Sea that I will never forget.
On our way out we were spotted by some people who were involved with the local
youth volleyball team that Gianni manages. They engaged him in a passionate discussion about an upcoming regional
tournament, and this was when I started to realize just how important Gianni is to so many people in his community. Then we
headed back to his house for dinner: many of his friends were invited and we had a
lovely long dinner in his yard overlooking the Strait of Messina. I ate like a king and laughed a lot.
The next morning, after I got to go for a quick swim in the sea, I had a little bit of time to myself. So I decided
to watch the DVD that Gianni had put together to document his passion for authentic vacchetta leather and the story of
his company. Thankfully, I was alone - because watching Gianni and his artisans pour their souls into the products they make, all with amazing mastery and dedication,
brought tears to my eyes.
Just as I finished dealing with those "things" in my eyes, Gianni came to pick me up and took me to his office, across the
street from his home. He described how he fell in love with vacchetta leather
at an early age, and how he gets his inspiration by exploring his beautiful surroundings. Gianni recounted his
history, from the nomadic days living off of the keychains he sold from his Vespa, to the days
of waving and smiling like a celebrity to a TV crew in Japan. In spite of some serious challenges, Gianni had managed
to turn his love for leather into a way to employ local artisans and to revive ancient leather working
techniques that were on the brink of extinction.
I then got to meet his entire staff, and quickly noticed how everyone was treated like family. They were all
incredibly skilled with their hands, and I was amazed by how long some of them had been working with Gianni.
I began to understand how throughout his life, Gianni has always been deeply committed to his family, employees,
community, and the local environment ... and continues to be such a positive influence on
so many lives! I definitely was not the only one to admire this man. (That was the moment I knew that we weren't just looking for handmade products, we were looking
for handmade products by artisans like Gianni - and awesome artisan, no doubt, but morever, an inspiring human being.)
If our intuition had told us that Gianni had the je-ne-sais-quois that we were looking for, it took Daniele meeting him in
person to figure out the qualities of the ideal Marcopoloni artisan. We were looking for artisans who dedicate their lives to their
craft and to the people around them, and who, through such dedication and creative talent, create products with a soul. But it wasn't until 2011 that we realized the urgency of
the cause that was beginning to take shape. Daniele recounts his visit to Murano, the island near Venice where the glass-making
tradition dates back more than a thousand years:
I was very excited to visit Maestro Imperio Rossi (Emi, our daughter Chiara and I had met his daughter Sara and son Mattia six months before). Despite his diminutive stature, Imperio had a larger-than-life persona - serious and focused on his work, yet showing flashes of joviality and a sense of humor. Every precise yet fluid movement he made exuded pride in his profession. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten to spend the entire day learning about glass, the tools, the history, the techniques,
the tradition, and the art, from this Murano Glass Master - a title that is reserved for the most experienced glass-blowers.
At the end of the day, I got to spend some more time talking to Mattia about the behind-the-scenes details of running
a business like his family's, about Murano, and about the importance of Murano's millenary history
and tradition. I was surprised
to learn that the vibrant glass colors so common in Murano glass are not the result of mixing colors but the coronation of years
of experimentation that has been passed down from maestro to maestro. Not
surprisingly, over the centuries, the formula for achieving some of those colors were lost forever.
Mattia then described how Murano is dying: many furnaces had to close in recent years, and the number of glassworkers on the
island has dwindled to less than a third of what it used to be just a couple of decades ago. The cause?
The economic crisis of 2008, and cheaper competition from overseas. Glass factories in developing nations substitute centuries of experience and unbound creativity with lower-grade (and in some cases, toxic) materials and mass-production methods.
I later found out
while doing some research online, that
those factories thousands of miles away from Murano call themselves ... you guessed it: "Murano Glass Factories".
Reality felt wrong but inevitable. As I headed back to catch the vaporetto, I decided to walk into one of the local gift
shops. On item after item, I saw an
unrealistically low price - unrealistic because, having seen what it takes to make one single tumbler, the prices of these
items would cover but a fraction of the cost of making a genuine Murano Glass product. I didn't realize it right away,
but here is where the battle is being lost. The casual visitor to Murano may not even get to see a real Murano Glass.
Dejected, I walked out of the shop and past an abandoned glass furnace. Then another. Then one that was being converted into a
words echoed in my mind: "Murano is dying". For the second time in my life (that I admit to), I was unable to hold back my tears.
Part of my country is dying,
a millenary tradition that swells my heart with pride is being swept away by cheaper imitations! Soon, my despair turned
into fear: a fear that Murano Glass as we know it may be a thing of the past by the time our daughter has become an
That's when I decided to fight back. I know we can't prevent the spread of corner-cutting imitation products. But what we can do is spread the word about these artisans and their
products that are rooted in tradition, made with love and pride, have a soul - and as a result, yes, more expensive.
Suddenly I felt more strongly than ever about the Marcopoloni mission, and I could not wait to get back to my family.
As it turned out, those uninspiring "things" that Emi saw in the bookstore years ago were quite inspiring afterall. They inspired us to embark on this journey where our mission, over the years, has come into clearer and clearer focus:
To help the world rediscover the soul
which has been infused into a product
at the hands of an inspiring artisan.
We like Marcopoloni. It's our oasis where the fake, the uninspiring, the disposable, the soul-less, and the canned-made will not be allowed
to enter. We are determined to defend the way of the artisan - something that has been brushed aside towards the brink of obsolescence. We thank you for supporting our incredible artisans and their amazing products.
-Daniele and Emi