BERTI: between tradition and innovation on the Tuscan hills

Where Windows wallpapers are born, Berti's knives are also born.
The green Tuscany, one of the regions where the writer has an infinite series of memories and where she escapes as soon as there is a sunny weekend, is also the theatre where some of the most interesting Made in Italy brands are born. Not only fashion and leather accessories, therefore, but also knives and glass see the light of day in the hills of Mugello, north of Florence.
The appointment is with Andrea Berti to chat a little about the family company and its history and visit the production. The day isn't the best in Milan, it's cold and there's still a winter wind blowing but, as soon as we leave Lombardy, the sky clears up and the clouds give way to the pale blue of a February sky.

Once we arrive, we start chatting with Mr. Berti.


B: I joined the company in '83 and I have a curious story because generational continuity was not envisaged, essentially the business should have ended its life with the third generation because I studied civil engineering, even though I didn't graduate with very few exams missing 

A: Why civil engineering?

B: Because since I was a child, I had two games: Plexi City, which doesn't mean anything to you, but it was Lego, and Meccano. I liked the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčbuilding houses and doing things like that. When, in 1983 I essentially decided to interrupt my studies, perhaps the greatest insanity I had done in my life, I had very few exams left. While waiting to understand what to do, I went to work in the family shop and when I arrived there were three people over sixty. I was in front of an artisan shop¬†without any kind of problem but had no prospect of moving forward. Just think that the list of customers and suppliers was in an address book that I still have where the names and addresses were written in pencil so that when a customer or supplier changed or closed the business, it was removed with an eraser

A: In short, a bit old fashioned!

B: Over the years I realized that our production was dead, that means there was no possibility of development for production because we made knives for the poor, for farmers, Sicilian and Calabrian fishermen mainly, which needed to be very resistant, very sharp, last a very long time and cost very little!

A: How much did a knife cost then?

B: We sold a knife on average, in '83, for 100 lira (Editor's note: lira was the former currency used in Italy before Euro). It's true that we're talking about 40 years ago, but believe me, even at that time 100 lira was very little. And the Calabrian fishermen told me “Berti, I can find knives from China for 10 lira." I understood that we were dead if we didn't change something.

A: What happened then? What made you change course?

B: In the 80s, there was the explosion of custom cutlers, those who made a custom knife for you if you were, for example, a bear hunting enthusiast. I couldn't make a custom knife, it's a world that absolutely doesn't interest me, it's very oriented towards the knife as a weapon, which is something that doesn't interest me. On the other side there were the Chinese, growing and uncomparable from the point of view of production costs. In the middle there were some large European companies, in particular German, French and Spanish, which were industrially organized with huge investments. These companies had a family tradition back in the pre-industrial era. They were already into the markets and have made investments.

A: But you could get inspired, right?

B: Exactly. I invented a formula that didn't exist, an innovative craftsmanship system that essentially placed me between custom and industry. I don't know how to make knives, but I know about knives, and I have very clear ideas about how they should be made; therefore, I hired collaborators, individual craftsmen who worked for me but with independence in the production process. Everyone can organize him/herself as they wish within the process. This is why there are the initials of whoever made the knife both on the blade and in the box.

A: And in terms of prices, how have you positioned yourself?

B: I wanted to make a democratic product, suitable for a large number of people, which had relatively affordable prices. Then today the market sees them as high prices but if you think about it in absolute value you are talking about nothing because our most expensive single kitchen knife costs 150 euros. What family doesn't buy 150-euro Nike shoes for their children?

A: I agree. But how do you make a knife democratic?

B: We used technology. The craftsmanship that I found was dead because it was sick with "craftsmanship disease", that is, a disease that afflicts many good craftsmen who think that their job consists in doing what has always been done as it it's always done. So, using technology means improving the product rather than making it worse, because it gives greater qualitative consistency, greater precision but leaving, let's say, the flavour of humanity.
Subsequently there was frantic research on what were the traditional Italian typologies linked to cooking because in the world every kitchen has developed a cutlery. For example, Japanese cutlery is different from ours because their way of cooking is different.

A: And did these knives born in Italy?

B: The knives that we use in our kitchens today in Italy and Europe are more or less the same as ancient Rome. The handles have adapted to the shape of the hand we have today, but the blades are the same. Starting from 97, when we designed the new Convivio, which is our most famous and best-selling knife in the world, it was the first knife in the world to have the S shape.

 

A: Why this shape?

B: The reason is trivial, because if you try it, you will realize the difference, because that knife comes out of your hand as an extension of the harm, it lets you cut without raising your elbow and I hope that tomorrow it will become a traditional piece¬†for the Italian cutlery. Then Valdichiana was born, which came to mind from a knife that appears in a painting by Pontormo at the Uffizi. This knife on the table looked very beautiful to me and it seemed like a good idea to reproduce it. Hence the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčgiving continuity to tradition.

A: What about the Cucinieri line instead?

B: We make that line in Brescia. Customers have called and complimented us on the quality, so it means that in that price range they can get something which is better than what is usually found around in that type of range.

A: What should the perfect knife look like?

B: It must have a functional and hedonistic value, which means, it must be pleasant to use, but also nice. Why do I have to put on my dining table or in my kitchen, a knife that looks more like a dagger than a knife?!

Then there should be a transactional value, which is the one linked to the relationship between how much I paid for it and how I position myself in relation to the product I bought. We do not only sell knives, but experiences... that's why we have equipped our knives with a packaging that was born back in 1995 but is still surprising today compared to what is around. Each of our boxes contains a little story about the object inside, something you can't find on any other knife in the world.

A: Storytelling!

B: Exactly. Since the beginning, we have always collaborated with chefs and experts to create collections intended for a food segment. In 2000, the first cheese box in the world was born: so, seven knives for seven cheeses. It all started from a chance meeting, at a RAI broadcast (Editor's note: RAI is the national TV network) where I had lunch with Marco Parenti, and architect who wrote a delightful book on how to cut cheese. I told him: "why don't we make a box set together?"

A: Any other projects you're thinking about?

B: Now I'm making a particular product for the Fiorentina football team, which in my opinion will not develop amazing sales, but it's something that has never been seen. We are a bit like a knife boutique!


At a certain point we realize that the clock shows lunch time and, finding ourselves in Tuscany, we plan to go and eat a Fiorentina steak. The writer hasn't eaten meat for years and, therefore, we spend the next half hour, very jokingly, trying to resolve the age-old question of "what does someone who doesn't eat meat eat". Having resolved the doubt, we reassure our traveling companions and head towards the countryside where a restaurant awaits us located in a real castle, with its spiers and wooden doors... after all, we are in the Bel Paese!


A quick look at the menu and a careful choice of the knife (strictly Berti) suitable for tackling our lunch and we are ready!


We leave you here at the end of the first part. Stay tuned for the second part where we will visit the factory!

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