Murano glassblowing model shattered by methane price surge
VENICE, Italy – The Italian glassblowers of Murano have survived plagues and pandemics. They transitioned to highly prized artistic creations to outrun low-priced competition from Asia. But surging energy prices are shattering their economic model.
The dozens of furnaces that remain on the lagoon island where Venetian rulers transferred glassblowing 700 years ago must burn around the clock, otherwise the costly crucible inside the ovens will break. But the price for the methane that powers the ovens has skyrocketed fivefold on the global market since Oct. 1, meaning the glassblowers face certain losses on orders they are working to fill, at least for the foreseeable future.
“People are desperate,” said Gianni De Checchi, president of Venice’s association of artisans Confartigianato. “If it continues like this, and we don’t find solutions to the sudden and abnormal gas prices, the entire Murano glass sector will be in serious danger.”
A medium-size glassblowing business like that of Simone Cenedese consumes 420,000 cubic feet of methane a month to keep his seven furnaces hissing at temperatures greater than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit 24 hours a day. They shut down just once a year for annual maintenance in August.
His monthly bills normally range from $12,700 to $15,000 a month, on a fixed-price consortium contract that expired Sept. 30. Now exposed to market volatility, Cenedese is projecting an increase in methane costs to $70,000 in October, as the natural gas market is buffeted by increased Chinese demand, uncertain Russian supply and worryingly low European stockpiles.
Artisans like Cenedese now must factor in an insurmountable increase in energy costs as they fill orders that had promised to lift them out of the pandemic crisis that stilled the sector in 2020.
“We cannot increase prices that have already been set. ... That means for at least two months we are forced to work at a loss,” said Cenedese, a third-generation glassblower who took over the business his father started. “We sell decorations for the house, not necessities, meaning that if the prices are not accessible, it is obvious that there will be no more orders.”
Cenedese, like others on the island, is considering shutting down one of his furnaces to confront the crisis. That will cost $2,300 for the broken crucible. It also will slow production and imperil pending orders.