The first day I met A., in his father's lace shop not far from Piazza San Marco, he tossed off in passing: "This place will be a museum soon, not a store."
The location of the store seems a little museum-like as it is, composed of two separate showrooms (on slightly different levels) tucked away, grotto-like, off the worn stone entrance halls of a 16th-century palazzo. A's father has owned and operated the shop in this same location since 1958.
Recently his father, Signor L, stated things more explicitly: "In about ten years there will be no more Burano lace being made."
The youngest of the masters who make the lace for their store, he explained, is 75 years old.
"What about the lace schools I see advertised?" I asked. "Aren't younger people learning to make it?"
He shook his head, said, "Those people are learning a hobby. It is not the same."
He estimated that 98% of the lace, and 60% of the glass, for sale in Venetian shops is made in China. He carries Chinese machine-made lace in his own shop because sometimes that's what people want, but he keeps it sequestered in a windowless, almost closet-like space all its own far from the main showroom, and does not pretend it's something it is not. At first, he said, the quality of such lace wasn't too bad for being machine made, but it has gotten worse. However for those who want to buy a lace tablecloth in Venice, such lace is often the only type they can afford. Though he does carry some smaller tablecloths and table settings partially hand-made in Tuscany that are quite reasonable.
A restauranteur I once met while working in a New York bookstore advised me never to eat cheap sushi or sashimi because the quality of fish needed for it does not come cheap--and he said he'd hate to know the origin or age or state of the cut-rate stuff.
Real lace also does not come cheap.
A circular work of Burano lace just large enough to serve as a coaster for a beer bottle costs 200 euro and represents a week of labor. A work of Bobbin lace--a different method practiced on the island of Pellestrina south of Lido--about the size of a small salad plate costs 150 euro. The small 30 euro pieces displayed with signs of "Hand Made" in shop windows around the Piazza and elsewhere (including Burano itself) may in fact have been made manually, but far far away from the Venetian lagoon.
No matter how high the cost of Burano (or Pellestrina) lace, the economics simply don't work out anymore. There's just not enough money in it for the skill and time put into each piece. There aren't enough people around who appreciate the craft enough to pay for the labor.
My friend A. says that Japanese visitors to Venice are an exception. They're familiar enough with Chinese lace to recognize what makes Burano lace so special. And of course there are the very rich, like international art star Mathew Barney and his Indie-rock star/actress wife, Bjork, who can spring for an authentic full-scale Burano tablecloth (which they had dyed black).
Something that always catches my eye when I visit the shop are the small framed pieces of old Burano lace. They are floral elements, ranging in size from just a bit larger than a man's thumbnail to just a bit smaller than the palm of one's hand, cut out of damaged remnants made in the 19th Century or earlier. The gauge of thread used back then has not been manufactured for quite some time. It's truly gossamer.
The other day Signor L noticed me peering at one of these small scraps and motioned me over to a display table. He opened a drawer, took out a small bundle, then carefully unfolded a perfectly-preserved 200-year-old Burano lace table runner.
"You almost never find a whole piece like this anymore," he said. "They have all been cut up."
He had acquired this one about a dozen years ago from a local woman selling off the possessions of a recently-deceased elderly relative.
It was amazing, with all the complexity and depth of design for which Burano lace is famous. It was impossible to take it all in at once. You had to read it like a novel, taking the time to follow out the development of each of its main themes. Finally I found myself fixed on the most attenuated line of floral ornamentation stretched like a spider's trail between major motifs: garlands of tiny flowers made of that thin-gauge thread long unavailable. Each three-dimensional flower just four tiny petal-shaped loops of a single airy thread around a spherical center formed, incredibly, of smaller rounder loops. It was hard to imagine the person who had worked on such a scale.
I wondered about the cost of this piece, but couldn't bring myself to ask that. Instead, as a preliminary, I asked, "Will you sell this?"
"No, no," Signor L said quickly. "Never. This is mine."