Shit happens – we all know that – and when it does, sometimes it can be magic. Alfredo Ramponi stands right in front of me as he tells the story of his life and his company, Ramponi, one of the three most important worldwide producers of plastic stones and strass for the fashion business. He’s got the firmness and stamina of those who fight hard, the calmness of the man who covered a long distance on the path of loyalty.
Do you remember those plastic little things we used to clean our LPs with before putting them on the record player? Alfredo’s father was the one who produced them for the biggest hi-fi stereo companies of that time – Pioneer, Samsung, Akai, just to name a few. However, CDs changed the way we listened to music and things turned bad for the family business. Alfredo was then a youngster travelling around Europe and practicing his German, so he tried to speak as much as he could. Imagine a small café in Munich, where some fellows were having a break. One of them was Mr. Marcus Otto Schmidt, a 53-year-old Swiss manufacturer of shoe accessories sitting alone, just like Alfredo, 23. While having lunch together, Marcus asked Alfredo if his father could make better plastic stones than the ones he was showing him. “Papa repeatedly told me never say no, so I said let’s try”, remembers Alfredo, “We made the prototype and Mr. Schmidt was so amazed by the result that he placed a huge order, about 1 million pieces”.
That’s exactly when shit happened. Alfredo’s father worked with his brother, who was more into the technical side of the business. The uncle decided to set up his own business, relying on the fact that Mr. Schmidt would follow him as he actually knew how to produce the stones. “It was such a shock for my father that he went insane and never recovered from this shock for the rest of his life”. Alfredo took over the oldest machines from his uncle, put them in his garage and – ta-dah – here came the magic. “Marcus said I was the one whom he had first talked to and that he wanted to do business with me. He said he was willing to wait till I was ready and he did it”. Four years later Alfredo had learned enough and Mr. Schmidt finally received the goods.
“It was a great start. Marcus is a second father to me even now, but I needed to achieve more to survive. In 1993 I wanted to join LineaPelle, the Milan exhibition for leather, accessories and components. I knew my stones had something special, but I didn’t have enough money to pay the fee. I managed to convince the organizers to assign me a small area at the entrance and surprisingly everybody stopped by”.
Marcus said I was the one whom he had first talked to and that he wanted to do business with me. He said he was willing to wait till I was ready and he did it
Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Fendi are just some of the maisons using the Ramponi stones and strass, whose major appeal is brightness. “My stones are not as beautiful as Swarovski gemstones, but I’m proud of our collaboration with Swarovski, who shows us much respect for what we do. When I invented the Ramponi cut, where the stones are faceted from the inside, they congratulated me”, says Alfredo with a broad smile. And those who are mad about Valentino ‘Rockstud’ collection might be surprised to know that all those desirable studs are from Ramponi.
Stones, even the plastic ones, are as mesmerizing as fire: you can’t take your eyes off them. While we walk through the factory I stop here and there to have a closer look. The plastic which will be turned into beautiful stones comes in big bags and looks like rice. Alfredo explains how they do it, but I’m hypnotized by colours, shapes, transparencies. I believe there’s magic in all those processes as well; there must be some elves living inside those machines.
While he speaks, I’m much impressed by his story about using a very special equipment coming from the U.S.A. and used by farmers (and by NASA) to count seeds. Alfredo thought that it could count stones too and in this way he managed to sensibly improve the accuracy of their deliveries.
“There are people who started working in this company 20 years ago and they are still here. I think you don’t spend all this time in a place you don’t like, I feel the importance of the relationship we all built together”, says Alfredo. Until 2005 Ramponi had 15 employees, now there are 108, and Ramponi has been awarded for being one of the few companies in its area (Lombardy) that doubled its income in the last ten, tough years.
Before we leave, the photographer takes one last picture of him. We ask Alfredo to sit in front of a big writing on the wall of his showroom. It says: “Love what you do”. As he poses, his face turns into naive solemnity. I guess that is the look of one who never despairs. A look I won’t forget.