Artisans juggle ‘hats’ to be more business-minded

Successful artisans whose handcrafts withstand harsh market conditions have to wear many hats these days – the hats of a banker, accountant, wholesaler, retailer, customer, artist and manufacturer.

“You have to be all of these people rolled up into one,” says Joe Galea, owner of Heritage Homes and Artistorika.

Mr Galea ought to know. He has just netted two prestigious awards, the Ġieħ l-Artiġġjanat Malti from the Malta Crafts Council, and the World Intellectual Property Award for creativity from the Industrial Property Registrations Directorate at the Commerce Division.

At the presentation, the Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business Jason Azzopardi referred to the €200,000 the government had voted for the second time to support the artisan sector.

“These funds are meant to nurture greater initiatives and incentives that promote craftwork and assist artisans in today’s business environment,” Dr Azzopardi said.

“Artisans have been decimated by the onslaught of tough market conditions, a dearth of investment and high operating costs,” Mr Galea adds. “This is not a level playing field but the time of subsidies is over. We have to compete by offering quality and value for money. Those who do not accept this simple truth might as well forget it,” Mr Galea said.

Another aspect is branding. One of the ways artisans promote their brand is by demonstrating their product uniqueness and that it is readily identifiable with Malta.

In the souvenirs sector Heritage Homes is best known for miniatures of architectural landmarks, Artistorika for replica stone souvenirs. This is the only way to shore up against the barrage of souvenirs that are made for a pittance in Asia.

“Branding and packaging are extremely important. In this context I commend the makers of food products in Malta and Gozo who have improved their branding and packaging immensely. It is indeed a quantum leap.”

In Rome and Taormina, for example, 70 per cent of souvenirs are made in Asia and are considered “junk”, he said.

“All crafts suffered in the tsunami of imports, particularly silver filigree, which is facing an unfair challenge from imported goods which are very well finished but mass produced, so it comes at a third of the price.

“We have to accept that things have changed and that there is no way imports can be halted. We have to design products that are only made in Malta and have not been seen anywhere else. Attractive packaging plus a certificate of authenticity help fight competition on quality and origin.

“My dream is for tourists’ family and friends to easily recognise souvenirs bought in Malta. They would not have to check the printed details on the box to see where they were made.”

Mr Galea started out 25 years ago when he made all the five products he offered for sale. From those early days, his product range now numbers 400. This amount is not enough, he notes with his typical sense of caution, because importers are constantly bombarding souvenir shops with fresh ideas.

“Every item has its own lifespan and you cannot replace a ‘dead’ piece with an inferior one. At the same time souvenir shops cannot afford to have ‘dead’ shelves or shelves that do not reap a healthy profit.

“Shop owners expect higher profit margins to make up for expenses. There are artisans who were never retailers and, therefore, cannot understand the perspective and demands of shop owners and wholesalers.”

The World Intellectual Property Organisation award was based on creativity and innovation. Heritage Homes won on creativity hands down.

They had to present the whole portfolio and examples of how their products spur creativity in local craftsmen.

“Giving people a lot of incentives to paint these items enables them to attain a high sense of gratification. These craftsmen feel truly proud of what they are doing.

“We give people the chance to express their talent and apply their skills with precision and a keen eye for detail. This enhances their satisfaction in doing a good job.”

The second reason for winning the award was the value-added the products have. Not more than five per cent of the retail price goes abroad to buy materials. The rest is made here: Moulds, packaging and painting, the lot.

For Ġieħ l-Artiġġjanat Malti Heritage Homes presented two items, namely miniatures of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and Palazzo Notabile which lies in Saqqajja, near Rabat close to the bus terminus. The items had to have been made during the last two years.

There were two separate adjudicating boards and the results were handed over to the Commerce Division.

“St John’s Co-Cathedral is nothing much to look at from the outside but it’s a marvel inside.

“You can see all the decorative details inside the Co-Cathedral. The difference is that in the limited edition, the sculpture, marble gravestones, paintings and frescoes are in colour. This finely detailed work was the crux, the turning point for us in winning this top award.

“The other building we presented was Casino Notabile which is a fine architectural gem. The precision of the model makes one appreciate what an exquisite jewel this building is.”

One of the best things you have to have is a never-ending passion for your work, Mr Galea said.

“For me it’s like going to Alice in Wonderland, feeling like a child again playing with modelling clay.”