Ancient Italian Craft May Be A Dying Art

The art of heating fine sand, sodium, calcium and a other few minerals and rolling it into glass was invented by the ancient Phoenicians. Around the seventh century, an Italian navigator brought the process back to Venice. By the late 1400s, the glass blowers of Murano had established a dominance that lasted more than 600 years.

And then someone did to them what they had done to the Phoenicians, CBS News correspondent Alan Pizzey reports.

Factory owner Marco Mazzega found a copy of one of his company's best-selling items for sale in the United States. It was made in China, where they don't have to worry about worker safety or environmental hazards, and sells for one-third the price of the real thing. So the only advantage the Murano producers have is quality.

Most consumers can't tell the difference. But the Murano glassmakers say anyone who buys a fake is being cheated out of a unique history of culture and pride.

"In Murano, we are born near the ovens," master glassmaker Simone Cenedese says. "It's a thing that comes to you, like speaking and writing and walking. You become a glass worker."

But it still takes 15 years to be called a master glass blower on Murano, the island where the glass blowers were relegated in the 13th century because their ovens were considered a fire hazard among the wooden palaces of Venice.

The skills of the Murano artisans were so highly prized that they were afforded special privileges — such as being allowed to wear swords and their daughters could marry into the Venetian aristocracy — but any glassmaker who tried to leave the island would have his hands cut off.

The punishment no longer exists, but the sentiment does.

"There's a whole part of Murano that thinks that secrets should be kept," designer Laura Di Sentillana says. "There are some workers who went, for example, to the United States and taught and they were looked upon as traitors."

The Chinese fakes that cut into the $240 million-a-year market are seen as even worse, although some glassmakers see a bright side.

"It hurts," Cenedese says. "But also it means people liked what I made. If I make something bad, no one will copy it. If it is beautiful, they will."

But a combination of Chinese competition and sons not following their fathers into the glass-blowing business means that the real thing is getting harder to find.