A Milanese manufacturer turns nature’s simple materials into treasured heirlooms.
Fortune is both bestowed and earned, says Mauro Lorenzi. You need some fortune, in the sense of “luck,” to have success and good health. “However, I think that you must work for the fortune that you want.”
“My fortune was the fortune of my grandfather,” he says. Mauro inherited the business his grandfather, Giovanni Lorenzi, started in Milan in 1929.
It started out as a cutlery and knife-sharpening shop, rooted in the family’s artisanal heritage — the Lorenzi family originates in the Val Renda region of Northern Italy known for its moleta, artful knife-grinders whose ancestral skills have made them masters of their trade in many areas of the world as they’ve emigrated.
Mauro’s grandfather chose an auspicious location for his shop. “At that time, Via Montenapoleone was just a common residential street, and he never even imagined that street … would become the centre of design and fashion [in Milan],” Mauro says.
When Giovanni set up shop there, he had a range of clientele, but he saw an increasing demand for gentlemen’s luxury items. Giovanni and his descendents have worked to expand the business accordingly. It’s now called Lorenzi Milano, and it produces handmade luxury items — from cufflinks, to travel shaving kits, to smoking pipes, which recall the masculine tradition of retiring to a smoking room.
One of Mauro’s most beloved keepsakes is a knife given to him by his grandfather, whom he considers his mentor and one of the most important people in his life. Its handle is cream-coloured with a yellowish tinge, and its solid blade is worn along the edges; it’s like a well-built man whose long years of hard work add a rugged distinction to his appearance in old age.
“[My grandfather] was a simple man that had a great sense of accuracy and innate elegance,” Mauro says. “This way of being was a model to be followed, a real inspiration for me. He taught me to do the best to achieve my aims and to focus on the quality of things.”
“He never even considered that I wouldn’t do the same work,” Mauro says. Each generation has worked to add to the fortune established by Giovanni, and the Lorenzis have also had a profound respect for the fortunes provided by nature.
Lorenzi Milano makes its treasures out of deer antlers, antelope horns, wild boar tusks, and other natural materials found through foraging in the forests of Northern Italy. The animals have either discarded these materials, or they have died of natural causes.
“[The raw materials] all end a natural life path together with the animals, a path which, in the case of deer, coincides with a seasonal phase of rebirth,” Mauro says. “[It’s] a pure and primordial cycle which we commit to immortalize through the hands and skilful work of craftsmen. Every veining, every colour, every unique feature impressed by nature into the material is a new point of departure for the creation of a product, capable of giving it a second existence,” he says.
This company philosophy is part of the family’s heritage, the way of life in the Trentino mountains. Their ancestral home of Val Renda is in the Trentino mountains, and although Mauro grew up in Milan, he spent time in those mountains and felt connected to them.
“The valleys taught me love and respect for nature,” Mauro says. “Nature is an extraordinary source of wonders. … We always produce the items following the natural shape of the material we are working on. Nature has been offering precious legacies to mankind, legacies which we ought to value and respect.”
“The culture of the local people of Trentino are based on simplicity; this simplicity is the reason of the success of Lorenzi Milano.”
Mauro and his two daughters now run Lorenzi Milano. One of those daughters is Linda Lorenzi, the company’s product development manager. She agrees with her father that the family was blessed with fortune, in touch with the bountiful resources of Trentino.
“All these materials are unique, because in nature, everything is unique, like us,” Linda says.
In Trentino, life is simple and people have traditionally had less, and consumed less. “Today we have too much,” Linda says, highlighting the wastefulness of mass-production in the commodity economy. Lorenzi Milano’s ethos advocates the creation of heirloom products cherished for many lifetimes.
“My biggest challenge making products is to ensure that the products last as much as they can,” Mauro says. “In a world that rapidly changes, I want to swim against the tide; I want the products to grow old with the clients.”
Linda now works side by side with her father, designing those treasured items. “[He] is a very good master for me, an inspiration,” she says. “The most important philosophy I learned from my father is to work hard, very hard, so, so, so hard.”
Linda explains that her father didn’t go to design school, yet he has an innate aesthetic sensibility. “He is simply inspired by his culture, his family tradition — it’s a natural inspiration,” she says. Working with him is “a meeting between past and future.”
When Mauro or Linda come up with a new idea for a product, Mauro sketches it, never using computer design programs. Then they walk downstairs to their workshop, and talk to their artisans to see if the design is feasible.
The Lorenzi workshop is an open and bright space where six highly skilled artisans create the company’s wide variety of products. It’s still known for its finely crafted cutlery, true to the family’s moleta heritage, though the workshop creates wine-cellar accessories, Nappa leather backpacks, and many other products. Many clients also request bespoke items.
The workshop is no longer on Via Montenapoleone; it is now in a building near Milan’s Leonardo da Vinci canals. But Lorenzi Milano is opening a flagship store near Via Montenapoleone this year.
The company outsources some aspects of production, since a great variety of skills are needed. It finds skilled craftsmen for each area of production to ensure high quality.
“The raw material is not a precious material, but the production makes the material precious,” Linda says. The horns, antlers, tusks and other natural materials they use aren’t rare, with one exception — Lorenzi Milano uses ancient mammoth tusks discovered in Scandinavia under the ice. Since that supply is truly limited, they make one-of-a-kind pieces from it, such as a smoking set priced at 20,000 euros.
The materials generally aren’t expensive like diamonds, yet the artisanship is priceless.
In the workroom, Mauro says, “you can just hear the skilful hands working on the products, and you can enjoy the smells of the natural materials. Unlike other workrooms, we like to show what our artisans do. We do not worry about hiding where the magic starts.”
“The feeling is like home, because this is not a large company,” Linda says. “There is a personal relationship between us.”
The craftsmanship of their products is slow, careful, and all done by hand. Like each antler or horn used, each product is perfectly unique.
The artisans have a deep understanding of how the natural materials bend and change over the years. “Some companies work with natural materials, but they don’t respect the natural characteristics of the material,” Linda says.
She gives the example of a horn she had received from a South African horn supplier as a sample. It was coated in an artificial varnish, ruining the natural essence of the material. “It’s not a treasure — it became plastic,” Linda says.
Traditional Carving Techniques
Linda emphasizes that Lorenzi Milano uses traditional carving and craftsmanship techniques, which don’t evolve much over time because the materials are so tricky to work with. The artisans need to know how temperature and humidity, for example, affect the bamboo root or stag antler. If they don’t understand these changes and they glue antlers on glass in the wrong way, the glass might crack under the pressure of the antler’s slight changes.
Each handmade item can take one to six months to craft. Linda remembers a Christmas when one of the artisans fell ill; her father went down to the workshop and began whittling away to make sure they met their deadlines.
The difficulty and risk in working with the materials, however, brings a long-term, sustainable joy, for both the clients and the Lorenzi family.
Mauro recalls one of his grandfather’s stories from the time of the Great Depression. A working-class man entered the shop on Via Montenapoleone. “I’m not rich enough to spend little,” the man said. He wanted to buy an expensive handmade manicure set that he expected to own his entire life.
Mauro says, “I think that it is better to buy an item just once and spend a little more than buying an item cheaper that you have to replace frequently because of its [poor] quality.”
Linda has learned about the great efforts behind a quality product. “I enjoy seeing a project on a sketch become reality,” she says. “When we look at some products, you see only the finished product. A lot of people can’t imagine what there is behind it. It’s fascinating.”
“Fortune for me is to be part of a family [business], and to do the work I really love,” she says.