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by David Thomas August 15, 2022
Our scissor travels bring us to visit Fennek and Alpen in northern Italy
Two things come to mind as we wind our way along the twisted, unnervingly tight turns on roads cut into the mountainside in the foothills of the Italian alps.
First, an observation: This is an absolutely gorgeous backdrop for a visit to the workshops of artisanal craft scissor makers.
Second, a question: Who decided to situate the heart of Italian scissor making here, in the mountains of northern Italy where you'd expect cows and goats?
Anyone who has read our Ciselier journal can probably guess the answer. If you said iron ore, you score points. The historic iron and steel trades always needed streams for power and wood or coal to fire the forges. But the key issue tied to location was, above all, easy access to iron ore.
Elsewhere, there were more convenient places with all those requirements in place: Think of Sheffield in England, or Solingen in Germany. But in northern Italy, the ore is up in the mountains and Premana is home to 94% of Italian scissor manufacturing, according to the local industry marketing agency. So that’s where we find ourselves
Meanwhile, we keep our eyes on the road, which is hardly wide enough to accommodate two mini Fiats. Buses honk their warning as they zoom out of blind corners, hogging both lanes and challenging you to somehow get out of the way without driving off a cliff. (We opted for slamming on the brakes and backing up.)
It’s Ciselier’s inaugural visit to meet the makers at Alpen and Fennek, both small family businesses and makers of quality, craft scissors. Home to almost 2,500 people, Premana lies about 70 km northeast of Milan, or an hour southeast of Lake Como. It’s a quiet town but with a long history of entrepreneurial gusto. By Roman Empire times, it already had logged a few hundred years in ironworking and attracted attention for its production of weapons.
READ: Where did all the craft scissor makers go?
Despite the two thousand years of history in iron working, knives, cutlery and scissors, the industry’s collective memory here has a short sightline. That is largely because the industry’s rebirth is still relatively recent, with the boom coming in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Thumbing through a local history book of the city’s scissor and cutting tools from the 1990s, we get the idea the industry sees its history as something decidedly more modern:
“The origins of the typical Premana craft of manufacturing scissors and knives are lost in the mists of history, until the last forty years, which have been marked by an absolutely exceptional development.” So reads a commentary in the book, titled A Future in the Past.
Let’s back it right up to the 15th Century.
In the early 1400s, the Republic of Venice took control of the iron ore resources of Premana and surrounding areas. And as the region became drawn into the orbit of the Venetian economy, a large-scale emigration ensued as Premanese skilled workers (including blacksmiths, weapons makers and blade/tool makers) packed up and moved to set up shop in Venice.
The two cultures combined visibly in the design of “dolfins” or “fero da prora”, the ornate iron prow-heads for gondolas.
Read More Scissor History:
How Sheffield put England on the map for cutlery and scissors
In the local Premana industry history, we don’t hear about a big uptick in scissor, knives and other steel trades until the 1800s, according to municipal history accounts from the city of Premana.
In the broadest strokes, it comes across like there were a few centuries of emigration then things began to reverse and artisans decided to come back and rebuild the local Premana industry. With that it began to build its reputation as an artisanal center of excellence that traded further abroad in Europe.
“In 1869 Ambrogio Sanelli returned to the town and restarted an ancient water wheel, building cutting blades, which he traded with distant compatriots. In 1880 he was joined by the Collinis, large shopkeepers from Milan,” explains the city’s historical accounts.
“Premana's knives and scissors began to be known on the Italian markets. Following the example of Sanelli, other Premanesi had started a craft activity in Premana towards the end of the [19th] century.”
Fennek, which set up shop in 1895 and is currently run by the Gianola family, a two-brother, mom-and-pop operation. Like many craft scissor makers in Italy, Fennek did a lot of manufacturing under other brand names as a sort-of-white label artisan. Davide, one of the two brothers, explains his great grandfather decided to establish the Fennek brand in 1953. The Fennek brand is very well known today, both among scissor/cutlery aficionados and textile retailers.
READ: Why did it take so long to invent left-handed scissors?
Made in Premana is an important stamp of high quality, but even today the talented local makers are highly sought after by clients in better known regions – including Germany and England – as white-label artisans.
As with the rest of the world, fewer and fewer artisans are still bothering to craft high-quality, traditional hand-made scissors, says Gianola.
“The largest companies in our country have turned to important markets – large distributors and supermarkets – at the expense of quality. On the other hand, we have always tried to raise the quality to have our own small niche market.”
(Those comments are music to our ears at Ciselier, where we have made it our mission to seek these makers out, promote them and make it easier for the public to buy their beautiful products.)
Fast forward again to the post Second World War era and we experience an even greater boom, which is when Alpen, the other company we are visiting, was born.
Alpen is another small, family firm, co-run by Mauro and Pietro Gianola, whose son Walter signed up to add a new generation to the business in 2015. The firm’s main focus is on stork and manicure and pedicure scissors.
Again, let's let city historians explain how this most recent resurgence came together:
The “boom in craftsmanship took place right after the Second World War. The 150 young people who had returned home from prison camps scattered all over the world set about building [and] renovating… “
In 1900, there were 10 blade (knife and scissors) workshops operating in Premana. That number grew to 20 in 1952 and more than doubled again to 48 by 1960.
That entrepreneurial spirit can be seen in the number of firms across different industries in Premana – by 1990, there were more than 250 companies in a town of just 2,500 people.
It was actually quite a unique, cottage-industry startup phenomenon. Think Silicon Valley – but for steel and with a lot of mechanization that still left all the fine crafting in artisan hands.
The boom drew on a lot of collaboration. For centuries across Europe, the blade trades had their outworkers who operated like skilled freelance trades people, often performing one stage of the production for multiple manufacturers at a common works.
In Premana, everyone got in on it, turning their basements into workshops where a worker performed his particular task. Today, most of the basement workshops are gone but the spirit lives on.
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