One of the many perks of our job as importers is the opportunity to meet people from other countries and cultures. Every time we’re in Italy we must go through the region of Umbria to the all-important ceramic town of Deruta, near Perugia–the sister city of Seattle, and each time the story reads differently. The ancient hill town of Deruta is home to some 700 painters, each of whom has their door open to potential clients from all over the globe. Ceramics abound in Deruta–they are hung on buildings, shutters, imbedded in stucco and stone walls and spill out of the shops onto the sidewalk at every turn. The historic center is on a hilltop and is full of tiny shops, while many larger studios with more industrial production facilities are located on the streets below. Shops are open all day except for the afternoon reposo (siesta) during il pranzo (lunch) which can last anywhere from two hours to until the next morning depending on how much wine is consumed at lunch.
Up in the old part of town, the Centro, merchants walk the rough cobblestone streets freely, grabbing espresso at the bar or catching up on the gossip of the town with other villagers in the piazza near the Musea Regionale della Ceramica di Deruta adjacent to their cluttered treasure troves full of their families’ interpretations of the centuries-old art of Maiolica. We have relationships with many painters in Deruta but there is one particular gentleman, Fernando, who we visit every buying trip but can never quite justify buying any ceramics from him. He has always been very gracious to us and we have wanted to do business with him, but taking on a relationship with new studio is a very involved process–most communication is in Italian, there is no product catalog from which to order, and we’re never really sure that what we order is what will arrive in Seattle after spending thousands of dollars and many months of our time. At times it feels a bit like gambling.
Consistently the dapper Fernando is dressed in a sweater, tie, and blazer and looks as though time doesn’t affect his appearance and apparently it hasn’t attacked his memory either. Once again we introduced ourselves and politely asked for some prices. “Every year you come and every year I give you super-special price and still you buy niente!” He says after he’s navigated his brain through the thousands of tourists that he has seen during the year since he’s last seen us. This time it was different, however–we were going to make it right with Fernando–we were determined to buy something. We poured over all the ceramic pieces–from the Raffaellesco napkin rings to the calla vases that we have seen in most every small shop in Deruta, looking for that one special sample that stood out as being original in a sea of patterns. Aha! We spotted some gorgeous geometric painted drawer pulls and wine corks decorated with lemons and inquired about his selection of hand painted ceramic ornaments for Natale. This is a minimal commitment but it’s an act of good faith and Fernando is pleased. Now, we have a business relationship.
Handsome Fernando, with his good Italian genes, is clearly the front man in what appears to be a pretty large family operation. With his suave manner, Fernando tells us all about his family business as he eagerly explains how his ceramic studio is the best in all of Deruta. His son is the painter and helps run the business. He is a very astute business man who sees an opportunity in America and asks us if we’d like to see the rental apartment that he has upstairs. We are always looking for accommodations for ourselves as well as our friends and customers and we accept his offer. He motions us out the door of the boutique, “What about your shop?” we ask, “Boh.” he shrugs indicating that it is of no concern.
Finally, perceptive Fernando realizes our yearning for an email fix and offers to go on his way–with no sense of urgency–back to his abandoned shop. We were very happy that we finally took the time to get to know the suave, meticulously dressed Italian named Fernando. Initially, we pegged him in the same category as a used car salesman but he turned out to be quite sweet and now we have some new ceramics to add to our mix and a great place to stay next year in Deruta!