A cooperative founded almost 90 years ago in the northeast of the Czech Republic produces glass Christmas decoration by hand and resists Asian competition, which invades markets with much cheaper industrial production but of inferior quality.
The company Vanocni Ozdoby (Christmas Decoration, in Czech) employs 120 workers, mostly women, who handcrafted about 80,000 Christmas tree ornaments.
In the past, the cooperative has exported up to 95% of its production, especially to the United States, Canada, France and Italy, but in the face of strong pressure, especially from China, it has seen this percentage fall more and more in the direction 80%, while its sales abroad now go mainly to Switzerland and Austria.
Most of the employees of Vanocni Ozdoby have spent their entire working life in this manufacturing, where they have learned this trade from scratch.
"Learning to blow (crystals) lasts between two and five years", tells Efe Regina Jácklová, the production manager of the Dvur Kralove plant, one of the two farms that the cooperative has.
From glass tubes, artisans mold the glass to the fire, then blow and achieve spheres of pinpoint accuracy.
After impregnated, the decorations – balls, bells and all kinds of figures – then go through an oven, in which they acquire various effects.
"We manufacture 80,000 types of products, which is unparalleled in the market, with 600 types of color ranges and each range in six effects, such as porcelain, matt, metallic or velvet," explains Ruzena Secka, the president of the cooperative.
"We managed to make everything from glass, any figure or animal," says and recalls the popular pickles that hang from the Christmas tree in North America, considering that they bring luck, or the black-painted figures for the Dutch market.
Once the required effect has been achieved, the articles are impregnated again by hand with glue, and then sprinkled with different colors, until the final texture is acquired.
This production process does not contain automation and requires great manual skills, which makes the company have problems finding new labor among young people, "who prefer to work in an office," says Secka.
The cooperative tries to overcome local and international obstacles to take advantage of the opportunities of the globalized world in a sector as specific as Christmas glass ornaments, where Chinese competition emerges, which sells more or less the same, but in plastic or industrial glass.
Thus, Asians have succeeded in snatching much of the sweet American market from the Czechs.
"The foreign markets are the same as before, but in the past we exported to the United States for about two million euros, and today if we sell them for 40,000 euros we are already happy," Secka acknowledges.
From a total of 1,500 workers and 16 factories, all in the north and east of Bohemia, the figures have dropped dramatically in the last 20 years, but this does not take away the desire to work for this group.
Thus, the women of Bohemia manage to maintain a price lower than 1.8 euros (2 dollars) per Christmas glass ball.
Apart from the Chinese competition, another problem is the improvement of working conditions in the Central European country, with increasingly demanding legislation regarding labor safety and wages, and regional competitors have also emerged, from neighboring Poland and the nearby Ukraine, with much lower labor costs.
In addition to getting customers abroad, the challenge of the cooperative is now to bet more on the national market, which currently allocates only 13% of its production.
Another strategy is to turn the artisanal product into "an experience", with excursions from schools and guided visits, says Regina Jáklová, whose family has been linked to the cooperative since its inception in 1931.
By Gustavo Monge
. (tagsToTranslate) Artisans (t) produce (t) Christmas decoration (t) (t) China