Islands in Time: for Local Artisans, the Key to Staying Ahead is Standing Still

Traditional painted beehives in Slovenia – Photo: Darinka Mladenovic

There’s an ancient saying in Slovenia: “Beekeeping is the poetry of agriculture.” The nation’s love of apiculture is so deep, you could say that Slovenians have honey in their blood.

In a country where more than half of the land is covered by wild forests, nature is of crucial importance. Set between Italy, Austria and Croatia, Slovenia’s honey-making traditions stem from the variety of its flora, from lavish Mediterranean coastline to pristine Alpine mountains.

In fact, Slovenia has more beekeepers than any other country on Earth. One in every 250 citizens here makes their living in honey production.

Making honey in the 21st century: Slovenia’s beekeepers

“Slovenians are the nation of beekeepers,” declares Natasha Lilac of the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association, safeguarding this part of the nation’s cultural heritage since 1873. “It’s a very big tradition—we love our bees. This is not just business or economics for us. Beekeepers here are in love with their bees.”

Slovenian apiarists have made a business strategy out of sticking to tradition.

Today, apiculture is one of Slovenia’s primary draws, with visitors flocking to Ljubljana and surrounding lush villages for apitherapy treatments, tastings of honey-soaked gingerbread and mead liquor, and even meet-and-greets with Slovenia’s famed, gentle local bee, the Carniolan.

The uniquely Slovenian AŽ hives can be assembled in pavilions

The uniquely Slovenian AŽ hives can be assembled in pavilions

“Slovenian beekeepers are different from the rest,” says Aleš Bozovičar, Lilac’s colleague at the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association. He points to Slovenia’s unique hive system, the AŽ hive, which opens from the back rather than the top like the beehives used in other nations.

The AŽ hive is an age-old solution that is stunning in its simplicity. The rear-door inspection feature allows beekeepers to check on their hives without disturbing the creatures, thus maintaining an atmosphere of tranquility and respect for the bees. It also allows beekeepers to link beehives together in the form of a pavilion and protect bees from adverse weather.

To remain competitive, Slovenian beekeepers focus on the quality of their honey, not quantity. They collect only 20 percent of the honey produced by their hives, in order to disturb them as little as possible. The result, says Bozovičar, is evident on your tongue. “Slovenia is a small country with extraordinary natural features. So we do not achieve surpluses with our honey production. But we have a very good quality, and a rich taste.”

For Slovenia, the quality of this prized product is linked to their commitment to safeguard tradition in a rapidly changing world. It’s a philosophy that Agnes and Francoise Costa, heirs to the Fragonard Parfumeur House, also understand well.

Artisan perfumers: fourth-generation Fragonard and the French Riviera

The two sisters are the fourth generation to manage Fragonard, a legendary perfumery house headquartered in an 18th-century factory in leafy Grasse, the idyllic French perfume capital in the hills of Provence.

Some of the locally-grown flowers used by Fragonard in its perfumes - orange blossom, roses and jasmin

Some of the locally-grown flowers used by Fragonard in its perfumes – orange blossom, roses and jasmin

There is high pedigree nearby; the flowers that dot Grasse’s hilly fields have been used for some of the world’s greatest aromatics, including Chanel No5, but Fragonard sets itself apart by choosing not to distribute its fragrances to secondary suppliers.

You must stay intimate with the brand to enjoy it.

Fragonard, whose name is a tribute to the French rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, has resisted the march of globalisation by insisting on exclusivity. Its delicate scents, cosmetics, bath soaps and linens are all produced in their own branded factory. The company does not export to department stores or online retailers, keeping their goods as elusive and sought-after as a whisper of fine perfume itself. You must stay intimate with the brand to enjoy it.

In a world where everything is available everywhere, this choice brings back the thrill of the chase. Fragonard does what no online business can—offering customers perfumes that literally cannot be found anywhere else. The philosophy, says Fragonard’s Elizabeth Bentz, is one of quality control.

The Fragonard Parfumeur factory in Grasse, near Cannes in France

“As it’s a family business, Agnes and Françoise Costa want to make all the decisions together and that’s why Fragonard is producer, distributor, seller at the same time,” she explains. “Parfumerie Fragonard is one of the last representatives of family-run, craft firms in the Grasse area and its success is due the passion of the fourth generations who run the company for perfume and its universe… Agnes and Francoise Costa are the true guardians of the Fragonard spirit.”

The idea of staying almost unchanged, these artisans say, is not to hold out like a relic. It’s to integrate legacy and craftsmanship into the modern marketplace. On the other side of Europe, for one legendary shop and maker in Lisbon, Portugal, the same philosophy fits like a glove.

Luvaria Ulisses, the last remaining glove shop in Portugal

Carlos Carvalho has stood behind the counter at Luvaria Ulisses, the last remaining glove shop in Portugal, for 43 years. Both shop owner and glovemaker, his work is unmistakable—he insists on producing his product with the same painstaking technique and tools that have been used since Luvaria Ulisses opened in 1925 at the mouth of Chiado, one of the most renowned shopping districts in Lisbon.

One of the artisans from Luvaria Ulysses stretching a piece of fine leather – Photo: Visao Sapo

The march of time and the wake of mass production has swept away of Portugal’s other glove shops, but at Luvaria Ulisses, where butter-soft leather is still drafted and stitched to the precise measurements of each client’s hands, business is booming. That’s because the tiny, closet-sized shop offers what simply cannot be found at nearby Baixa, where fashion racks are filled with mass-manufactured products shipped in from China. It offers the now all-too-rare pleasure of a truly couture item, created specifically and individually for one customer at a time.

Each pair of gloves is uniquely fitted to each customer – Photo: Visao Sapo

“We don’t change anything,” says Carvalho. “The colours and models change, of course, but the gloves don’t. They are very traditional.”

The reason, he says, is simple: people love knowing that no matter how much the outside world shifts, time will always stand still between Luvaria Ulisses’s close-set walls. “It’s very important that we continue,” he added. “These are my gloves, and they are special. We need to continue with this tradition, this quality, because it makes a difference.”

Small businesses are a key part of the fabric of a city and its culture. Artisans help to promote the values of their people, through putting quality first, making family decisions or just observing traditions to the letter. Sometimes, the only way to staying ahead is standing still.

Discover more about honey-making traditions in Slovenia with the help of our Concierge at InterContinental Ljubljana; the century-old perfume tradition of Grasse with our Concierges on the French Riviera at InterContinental Marseille – Hotel Dieu or InterContinental Carlton Cannes; or the small shops of skilled artisans of Lisbon with InterContinental Lisbon and InterContinental Estoril.

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