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Oldest Italy Bell Maker Avoids Death Knell via Exports

Fonderia Pontificia Marinelli Foundry in Agnone
An employee hones a bell in the workshop at Fonderia Pontificia Marinelli foundry in Agnone. Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

The process of making bronze bells hasn’t altered much in 1,000 years at the Pontifical Marinelli Foundry. What’s changing is where they chime, as Italy’s oldest family business looks abroad to dodge the economy at home.

The company in Agnone, a small town about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southeast of Rome, has increased exports to 20 percent of its revenue, four times the proportion a decade ago. With the Italian economy entering a third year of recession, reliance on sales abroad is only going to get greater, said Pasquale Marinelli, who owns the foundry with his brother.

“In Italy, any decisions about spending, including ones for bells like ours, are on hold until better times,” said Marinelli, 43, whose company’s bells hang in the United Nations building in New York, the Vatican and Leaning Tower of Pisa. “The orders from abroad allow us to work all year round.”

Italy is enduring its longest economic slump since records began after World War II. In the past five years, at least 37,000 Italian family companies have closed, according to the CGIA association of small businesses.

The euro region’s third-biggest economy will contract 1.9 percent this year before expanding 0.6 percent in 2014, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in a report today. Private consumption will be unchanged next year as exports “are projected to gain further momentum” as “foreign demand accelerates,” the OECD said.

Made in Italy

Gross domestic product dropped for a ninth consecutive quarter, falling by 0.1 percent in July to September, national statistics institute Istat said on Nov. 14.

“Any Italian manufacturer who wants to survive the crisis needs to sell abroad at least 80 percent,” said Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffe, a professor of business strategy at Milan’s Bocconi University. “Marinelli’s bells have both a functional value and a symbolic one, which makes them peculiar and puts them in that small group of the so-called ‘Made in Italy’ quality products poised for success despite the downturn.”

Ravaged by the debt crisis triggered in Greece four years ago, southern European countries are trying to export their way back to some sort of prosperity.

The Italian statistical office last week forecast an 8 percent increase in exports for this year and next. Portugal, which needed an emergency bailout in 2011, posted its first balance of payments surplus in goods and services for six decades. Spain expects its first current account surplus in 20 years this year.

Faith Measure

“During the long and deep financial crisis, companies that managed to expand the range of products and strengthen trade links with emerging markets were most successful in their response to the crisis,” Emanuele Baldacci, a department head at Istat, said by e-mail on Nov. 14.

As Italy sank into its latest economic decline, Pasquale Marinelli traveled as far as New Delhi and Equatorial Guinea from his town of 5,200 in the mountains of Molise to promote his wares. The foundry’s flagship product is a 100 kilogram (221 pound) bronze bell costing about 3,000 euros ($4,000) plus installation and delivery costs.

Clients range from heads of state to the Sapporo Sport Center in Japan, while its traditional focus of selling to Catholic churches has meant a steady flow of business, albeit increasingly from outside Italy.

Almost half the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America and their numbers have increased by more than 50 percent in the past 30 years, compared with growth of 4.9 percent in Europe, according to Vatican statistics.

Wax Molds

“They say we are like a thermometer for faith, meaning that we are able to measure whether the faith is rising or falling,” said Armando Marinelli, 53, Pasquale’s brother. “In Italy at present there is confusion and uncertainty and, let’s be frank, people are reluctant to spend money.”

On a November day, light filters through the dusted windows of an otherwise dark workshop. The wood crackles in two fireplaces, the foundry’s main power sources for centuries.

The bells are made using molds from wax and clay coming from Agnone’s countryside. The process lasts between three and 10 months depending on size and involves a local priest who blesses the bronze.

As the metal, molten in the wood-feed furnaces at a temperature of 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,200 degrees Fahrenheit), is poured into the space to form the bell, workers pray loudly. As the bell begins to cool, they exchange good wishes.

War Stories

The place has seen it all: the Great Schism dividing the church into east and west, the Thirty Years War that tore up Europe, revolutions, attacks from brigands and the plague. The oldest record of a bell produced by the Marinellis is in 1339, though bell-making began in Agnone in about 1000, they said.

During World War II, the fascist regime ordered the seizure of half of Italy’s church bells to produce cannons. The Marinellis’ grandfather would alert priests ahead of time so that they could bury their bells, hiding them from authorities.

As Italy underwent reconstruction and an economic boom after the war, the foundry employed up to 20 people, twice as many as now. Antonio Delli Quadri, the foundry’s eldest worker, remembers those times.

“After the war churches were being rebuilt all over and new ones were springing up,” said Delli Quadri, 75, who was hired in 1954. “Those were good days.”

The Marinellis, who inherited their business from their uncle in 2003, are second on the ranking of the world’s oldest family businesses, behind Japanese hotel Hoshi Ryokan, which has been run by the same family since 718, according to a list compiled by Philadelphia-based Family Business Magazine.

The brothers don’t like talking about their finances, and the entry on Italy’s company registry doesn’t include any figures either. While sales abroad mean the company is profitable, a further drop in Italian revenue means 2013’s results will be little changed, they said.

“I hope that the bells’ sound will always be one of joy, recovery and solidarity,” said Armando.

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