CAMPANE MARINELLI — Founded 1339
Art historians think that somewhere around 2000 BC, a craftsman living between the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf, created a sculpture out of beeswax. Then they covered it in damp clay and cooked it in a fire.
Obviously the beeswax melted, creating an empty space which was then filled with the liquid alloys of bronze (copper and tin). Once the metal cooled, the clay was chipped away and the very first bronze statue was cast.
No one knows exactly when the first bell was cast using this process known as “lost wax.” Some say it was in China, others in India. But most historians agree that the bell as a tool of worship or alert has been an integral part of humanity’s safety and spiritual identity for thousands of years.
Once religions really got organized and housed in physical places, the need for bigger and louder bells emerged. You know, to get everyone to church on time. Much time was spent studying the properties of the alloys that could produce the richest sound.
It was discovered that the best bronze came from a region of southern Italy called Campania. So, in the town of Agnone, the Marinelli brothers set up shop in 1339 and have continued to create and forge bells ever since.
The Catholic church believed bells to be res sacrae or the bridge between Earth and Sky, so they invested heavily in their production and have been Marinelli’s number one customer for centuries. The sound a Marinelli bell makes is unlike any other and is probably why it was awarded the title of “Pontifical Foundry” by the Vatican.
Campane Marinelli’s journey has not been without turmoil. One particularly dark time was during World War II when the German army occupied the foundry. The troops burned furniture, tools and precious documents to fuel stoves and melted most of the bells in inventory to make weapons.
The production and number of craftsmen has remained pretty much unaltered. Armando and Pasquale Marinelli are the 26th generation to helm the foundry and before any work is started, the Marinellis insist on knowing what precise note the customer wants the bell will make. Every part of the execution is based on that simple tone.
Handcrafting Papal Bells with Italy’s Oldest Family Business
Today the shop’s twelve artisans take about three months to produce a single large model. The foundry can produce approximately fifty bells a year. A 1,300-pound bell costs approximately $23,000. Sadly, its owners have recently said that the crisis of faith internationally is the greatest threat to its existence. Because quite simply, if fewer people are gathering to worship, there is no need for a bell, no matter how beautiful.
Still, Marinelli is a terrific example of a lean org chart. Too many companies and their founders feel like when it’s time to expand, the very first thing they need is more people. It’s not always the best tactic to take and Marinelli is a great example. Sure they could have spent years training dozens of new craftsmen. But I mean, c’mon. Can you imagine how long it takes to train a team of people to make a bell that’s going to ring at The Vatican?
Throughout its long and successful history, Marinelli has kept its team to no more than 12 people. In fact, 90 percent of the companies we’ve looked at in this overview of the world’s longest continuously operating businesses have less than fifty employees. They have kept it small, kept it tight, and kept it manageable.
So maybe that’s the key to longevity, small but mighty.