VENICE, Italy — The Italian glass blowers 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 glass blowing 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 glass blowers face certain losses on orders they are working to fill, at least for the foreseeable future.

Italy Energy Murano Glass

A mosaic with the name of a historical Murano artistic glass furnace is seen in Murano island, Venice, Italy, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. The glass blowers of Murano have survived plagues and pandemics and have transitioned to highly prized artistic creations to outrun competition from Asia, but surging energy prices may be their doom.

“People are desperate,” said Gianni De Checchi, president of Venice’s association of artisans Confartiginato. “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.”

Italy Energy Murano Glass

A glass-worker finishes a glass artistic creation in a factory in Murano island, Venice, Italy, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. The glass blowers of Murano have survived plagues and pandemics and have transitioned to highly prized artistic creations to outrun competition from Asia, but surging energy prices may be their doom.

A medium-size glass-blowing business like that of Simone Cenedese consumes 420,000 cubic feet of methane a month to keep his seven furnaces hissing at temperatures over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, or over 1,000 degrees Celsius, 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 on 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 glass blower 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.

Italy Energy Murano Glass

A glass worker works at a glass artistic creation as he walks past methane powered ovens in a factory in Murano island, Venice, Italy, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. The glass blowers of Murano have survived plagues and pandemics and have transitioned to highly prized artistic creations to outrun competition from Asia, but surging energy prices may be their doom.

His five glass blowers move with unspoken choreographed precision to fill an order of 1,800 Christmas ornaments speckled with golden flakes bound for Switzerland.

One starts the process with a red-hot molten blob on the end of a wand that he rolls over gold leaf, applying it evenly before handing the form to the maestro, who then re-heats it in one oven before gently blowing into the wand to create a perfect orb. It is still glowing red when he cuts it from the wand, and another glass blower grabs it with prongs to add the final flourish, a pointy end created from a dab of molten glass applied by an apprentice.

Italy Energy Murano Glass

A glass-worker heats a glass artistic creation in a methane powered oven in Murano island, Venice, Italy, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. The glass blowers of Murano have survived plagues and pandemics and have transitioned to highly prized artistic creations to outrun competition from Asia, but surging energy prices may be their doom.

As that dance progresses, another starts, weaving and bobbing into the empty spaces. Together, they can make 300 ornaments a day, working from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Italy Energy Murano Glass

A glass worker finishes a glass artistic creation in a factory in Murano island, Venice, Italy, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. The glass blowers of Murano have survived plagues and pandemics and have transitioned to highly prized artistic creations to outrun competition from Asia, but surging energy prices may be their doom.

“No machine can do what we do,’’ said maestro Davide Cimarosti, 56, who has been working as a glass blower for 42 years.

Murano glass blowers decades ago transitioned from wood ovens, which created uneven results, to methane, which burns at temperatures high enough to create the delicate crystal clarity that makes their creations so highly prized. And it is the only gas that the glass blowers are permitted to use, by law. They are caught in a global commodities Catch-22.

Italy Energy Murano Glass

A glass-worker gives the last touch to a glass creation in a factory in Murano island, Venice, Italy, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. The glass blowers of Murano have survived plagues and pandemics and have transitioned to highly prized artistic creations to outrun competition from Asia, but surging energy prices may be their doom.

For now, artisans are hoping the international market calms by the end of the year, although some analysts believe volatility could persist into the spring. If so, damage to the island’s economy and the individual companies could run deep.

The Rome government has offered relief to Italian families confronting high energy prices, but so far nothing substantial to the Murano glass blowers, whose small scale and energy intensity make them particularly vulnerable. The artisans’ lobby is meeting with members of parliament this week in a bid to seek direct government aid, which De Checchi said is possible under new EU rules put in place after the pandemic.

Beyond economic losses, the islanders fear losing a tradition that has made their island synonymous with artistic excellence.

Already, the sector has scaled back from an industry with thousands of workers in the 1960s and 1970s to a network of mostly small and medium-sized artisanal enterprises employing some 300 glass blowers. Venice’s glass-blowing tradition dates back 1,200 years, and on Murano it has been passed down from father to son for generations. But even at its reduced size and despite its creative rewards, it struggles to attract young people to toil in workshops where summertime temperatures can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Italy Energy Murano Glass

A glass-worker finishes a glass artistic creation in a factory in Murano island, Venice, Italy, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. The glass blowers of Murano have survived plagues and pandemics and have transitioned to highly prized artistic creations to outrun competition from Asia, but surging energy prices may be their doom.

“The value of this tradition, this history and this culture is priceless. It goes beyond the financial value of the glass industry in Murano,” said Luciano Gambaro, co-owner of Gambaro & Tagliapietra. “Over 1,000 years of culture can’t stop with a gas issue.”

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