MILAN — With its artistic glassware creations, Vetrerie di Empoli stands out in Via Montenapoleone, lined with designer brand after designer brand.
“We often get asked, ‘What are you doing on this street?’ And I answer, ‘I like to work and I still have fun,’” says owner Franco Parentini with a laugh during an interview at the Milan laboratory, where artisans make every piece by hand. To be sure, at age 75, Parentini has the energy and quick wit that one rarely expects from someone who has managed the family business since he was 18. Vetrerie di Empoli is marking 80 years in business in 2018 and it continues to rely on a loyal local clientele, as well as tourists from all over the world flocking to the tony shopping street.
To keep them coming, Parentini is clearly not one to sit on his laurels. “He is always testing, inventing something new; he is open and modern,” says his daughter, Ilaria Parentini. For example, he trademarked the “Gira e rigira” [twirl and re-twirl] glass, which doubles up as a decanting glass. “In a leisurely and convivial dinner, people delicately rotate the wine poured in a glass, it’s a very natural action and we facilitate that movement with the ‘Gira e rigira,’” he explains.
A small metal ball between the top of the stem and the base of the glass enables the person holding the glass to rotate its contents with a single, light spin of the thumb, allowing them to evaluate the wine, its color, consistency and aroma. “We worked with sommeliers who prepared a technical study and approved the glass,” notes Ilaria.
Another invention is the patented “Ikebana” glass. “People sometimes are wary of buying more artistic glasses because they worry they will break — although I wonder why they don’t worry in the same way about wearing out shoes and buying new ones,” Parentini says. “That’s why I came up with the idea of providing separate pieces of a glass to replace the broken ones.”
The “Ikebana” can be raised or lowered by adding or removing the stem and becomes a decor item depending on the combination and height of the glass. “It looks easy but to achieve the perfect alignment is not easy at all,” says Parentini. The glass retails from 50 euros and can go up to 400 euros depending on the number of pieces assembled. The company’s famed craftsmanship has helped stave off a number of competitors who tried to replicate the model.
That said, in addition to personalizing glasses with logos or initials etched into the glass — which can be made even more precious by using pure gold — Vetrerie di Empoli also repairs damaged ones. The experience of seeing the artisans at work, who perfectly grind and polish the circumference of a glass or a vase that had been chipped or badly broken is a wonder, as they gauge and calibrate everything by sight and through touch.
As in the fashion industry, it’s increasingly difficult to find artisans who can do this and paint the delicate decorations on the glasses, notes Parentini. “It’s the nature of the business. It used to be that to become a skilled artisan, you needed to start when age eight or 10 at the latest — after that, the first manual dexterity is over. It’s like artistic gymnastics, you can hardly become a champion if you don’t start young,” he observes.
Parentini says there is a rediscovery of craftsmanship as a result of the saturation of industrialization. “People had become used to the industry’s perfection. If there was a tiny bubble on the glass, they would think it was faulty. But now there is a return to craftsmanship and an understanding of its value,” he remarks.
Ilaria also emphasizes her father’s keen sense of marketing ahead of the curve, much before brands mapped out ways to engage their customers. Before the opening on Via Montenapoleone in 1996, Vetrerie di Empoli had stores in nearby Via Verri and Via Borgospesso, the latter a frescoed venue that now houses the Bottega Veneta home store.
“He realized that keeping the doors open on Via Verri would draw in more customers, and in the summer he would offer ice cream to customers,” she says.
He also never cut back on the number of sales assistants to offer the best service possible. Christmas decorations were a feast for the eyes there, and continue to be so on Via Montenapoleone.
Parentini was also a pioneer in mixing and matching different glasses — doubling up as place cards, for example. “Customers would come to us requesting we go back and re-create old models, but I thought it would be better to come up with new designs and match them in different ways. This livens up the table. It’s joyful and people don’t worry about breaking them,” Parentini says. In the store, new glasses are mixed with vintage collections, including Limoges and Biedermeier pottery and ceramics, which are also for sale.
The company loans glasses for special events and ships orders globally. At the headquarters, boxes addressed to Japan and Mongolia stand out in rows.
While the brand is called Griffe Montenapoleone, the company is called Vetrerie di Empoli because the glasses originated from the Tuscan town in the early 20th century and were all green at first, made with the iron-filled sand from the banks of the Arno River. Actually, the first Tuscan glassmaking workshop was founded in Florence in 1695 by Cosimo I de’ Medici, and from then on, the Tuscan glassmaking tradition developed on the towns along the Arno.
“People are more aware of the Murano glass, though, as it has a certain pedigree, while the town of Empoli never really marketed its glassware,” Parentini says. “And we did very little in terms of communication; the table sector is neglected. Fashion’s communication in comparison has been explosive, everyone has so many clothes, but fashion continues to sell.
“There’s a lot of attention on what we wear but not many people are concerned about what they put on the table. Maybe there’s a painting by Lucio Fontana on the wall, and the wine is expensive but it’s presented in an average glass,” he laments. “Even restaurants often have the best, most expensive wines but there is no attention paid to the glass it’s served in.”
Parentini believes this is more so in Europe compared with countries such as Russia and China.
He walks a fine line between tradition and innovation and contemporary designers and architects regularly work with the company. Last year, Giulio Cappellini linked with the brand for the installation “Cappellini Goes Barocco” and during the furniture and design trade show Salone del Mobile architect, Stefano Boeri presented his designs at the Vetrerie di Empoli store.
“We have to stay balanced, give customers what they want but express something different, too,” Parentini says.