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Fire, steel and the internet – Thomas Lampert and his forge “Fuschina da Guarda” in the Lower Engadine
In our interview, Thomas Lampert, blacksmith and owner of the Fuschina da Guarda forge in the Lower Engadine, gives us an insight into his life. He talks about how his interest in the craft came about, the role of his parents and the appeal of the mountains. Lampert also talks about the challenges of digitalization in the trade and his pride in building up his well-functioning online shop.
Fire, steel and the internet – Thomas Lampert and his forge “Fuschina da Guarda” in the Lower Engadine
Alex Sutter (AS): Dear Mr. Lampert: Why did you originally choose a trade and why — despite other options you had in the meantime, with your physics degree and with your humanitarian stay in Kosovo — did it end up being a trade?
Thomas Lampert (TL): I originally imagined the whole story to be a bit simpler than it turned out to be. I actually always thought that I would be able to do a bit of practical work in the trades — alongside my main job — and then I realized quite quickly that that wouldn’t be possible, and then in the end I really decided on the trades. I was also a bit fed up with the first educational path and school. I enjoyed working and then it was kind of obvious.
AS: And your parents, were they also already craft-oriented or did you come from a completely different kind of household?
TL: No, there are connections. The thing with the steel, with the iron, that comes a bit from my father; he sold it. Because I was relatively good at drawing, my father said, “Yes, give it a try, go and have a look, get a taste of an apprenticeship.”
AS: So the parents rather encouraged it back then and didn’t veto it and tell you to become a doctor or something?
TL: No, not at all, on the contrary. That’s great!
AS: And how did you end up with your forge in the mountains? I know that you’ve had it since 2002. But how did you end up in the mountains from the Basel region, from the lowlands, as they say in Switzerland? Was it your wish to go to the Oberland — to the mountains?
TL: No, my desire is more to do something that not everyone does. That’s always the case. And at the time I was really looking for self-employment as a blacksmith. First of all, I looked for an old workshop in the Basel region. And then I heard that Guarda up here was looking for someone to take over this old smithy. And then I finally took the plunge.
AS: What role does this mountain world that surrounds you play for you as a craftsman and entrepreneur? Does it have an influence on your attitude to life or your work?
TL: Yes, you probably have a bit more peace and quiet. Otherwise, not so extreme. I just like it here. That’s actually the main point. And perhaps one more thing: of course you have an advantage for certain products, namely tourism. You have to say that. People practically run into your business. Somewhere in an industrial or commercial district, somewhere in Switzerland or Germany, that wouldn’t be the case. That’s an advantage that I make full use of.
AS: We’ll come back to tourism and your customers in a moment. But first, perhaps in general terms: what is nice about your job and what is not? What sometimes or even often gets on your nerves?
TL: Well…what gets on my nerves is almost easier to answer: sometimes it’s King Customer when he doesn’t behave quite so royally *laughs*. But mainly it’s the hectic pace. The hectic pace because we work a lot in the construction industry. I’ve been doing it for 35 years now, and you can actually say it’s getting worse every year and that’s because of digitalization. I’m convinced of that. When I started my apprenticeship, nobody had a cell phone and we couldn’t talk to each other the way we do now. It was much easier back then. Somehow you planned better or further ahead. Everything wasn’t at such short notice and less was forgotten. That often gets on my nerves. And the nice thing is the creative side, that we still have a certain amount of freedom in many things that we can shape ourselves.
AS: So would you say that digitalization is also changing a lot in the trades and construction industry, especially in terms of communication, and that this is having a negative impact on the quality of workmanship?
TL: It’s not necessarily at the expense of quality, but at the expense of health. People are simply more stressed these days.
AS: You also provide training. Do you have problems finding enough and, above all, enough good employees?
TL: Yes and no. I am very well served with my employees because three of them have already completed their apprenticeship with me. They left somehow and then came back, they obviously like it here. And in the forging sector, if you need someone at short notice, there are still journeymen on the road that you can fall back on. I don’t know exactly how the vocational training system in Germany is structured in our industry. In our case, our apprentices are learning to be metalworkers specializing in blacksmithing — and metalworkers already have a huge problem. Nobody wants to get their hands dirty anymore. However, blacksmiths still have a certain advantage over other tradespeople. There are still plenty of young people who are a bit, shall I say, freaky, who think it’s great. And yes, the few that we train, we always find the right ones.
AS: How dangerous is your job? Because you have a lot to do with steel and edges and heat and fire.
TL: Yes, but that’s the only dangerous thing. There are certain machines where you just have to be a bit careful. But nowadays, it’s nothing compared to 35 years ago, now there’s safety built in here and safety built in there. So I wouldn’t say that we have a really dangerous profession.
AS: Which of your products, you make very different things, from knives to stair railings…which of your products is closest to your heart and why?
TL: Yes, I’m almost not allowed to say. Yes, I always say it openly: Grave crosses or tombstones. Because there is a lot of creative freedom and you can also work in a modern way. You can somehow respond to transience. And yes, it is then a monument… it is a monument that is not necessarily, how should I put it, time-related. It can also cost a bit more and the conversation with the customer about what kind of person the deceased was, what suits them and so on, that’s actually almost the most interesting thing.
AS: That’s an exciting answer. And who buys your products? What kind of people are they?
TL: In the case of kitchen products, for example, it’s the entire middle class who enjoy such a handcrafted product that they can also use. It’s not just a decorative product, it’s a commodity. But basically, customers range from farmers who need an appliance repaired as quickly and cheaply as possible to luxury products for a villa.
AS: And which customers are more demanding or more difficult? Those who need an agricultural appliance quickly and cheaply…
TL: You can imagine. I don’t have to spend ages answering that.
AS: Do your customers tend to be men on the whole? Metal, knives and so on, that’s more of a topic for men, isn’t it?
TL: I thought so too. We actually slipped into knife production like that. I thought it would be something for the markets here in the Engadin. I had noticed at these markets that they are mainly for women, that there are mainly items for women, silk-painted scarves or ceramics. And I noticed that the men were walking behind. And then I thought to myself, yes, if you make knives, then the men have something to look at too!
But that was actually a mistake. Because the knives are now actually bought 50/50 by men and women.
AS: That fits perfectly, because our sisterMAG target group is almost exclusively women!
Which of your professional achievements are you particularly proud of? Is there anything?
TL: That’s extremely difficult. Perhaps having shown the doubters that it is possible after all. Ninety-five percent of the people around me think that sounds crazy, Thomas is a master blacksmith and then he goes to the last village in the remote Engadin? And the people up here were also skeptical as to whether it could work. And the fact that it is now working after all is perhaps what brings a certain pride. But otherwise, pride in a specific product, no, I don’t feel that.
AS: How do you want things to continue now — you’ve already achieved a lot, you’ve also expanded spatially with the great forge here in Giarsun. What goals do you still have? You’re still a young man… it’ll take a while before you retire!
TL: Yes, yes, 14 years to go — or 13? I already have ideas, but I can’t tell you anything about them yet. I’d need more space, for example. We’ve used every square meter here and I’m not allowed to build any bigger.
AS: Would it be a craft goal then? You are already thinking outside the box and are now also a restaurateur in your beautiful smithy.
TL: Yes, that’s me. That’s actually my wife. But there has always been a connection between the blacksmith and the catering trade because in the past the farmer would come to the blacksmith to either shoe the ox or the horse or to have a repair done. The blacksmith would do that and the farmer would go to the blacksmith’s wife and get something to drink in the meantime. And that’s how these restaurants developed, which are still called “Zur Schmiede” or “Schmiedestube” today. So here in Switzerland, this combination was and is not so strange.
AS: From the past back to the present and future: you also have an online store. What role does the internet play for you as a sales or marketing channel?
TL: Yes, it plays a huge role, it’s just the way the world works these days. We have even had to reduce the size of our own online store enormously. This means that we only ship very specific products ourselves because we were totally overwhelmed. We are not a mail order company where you click on a button and place a quick order and the goods then arrive from China almost automatically. We produce here and also handle the logistics. It quickly became too much. But it’s quite clear that online is the biggest business for us. I’ve already collected all the big Christmas orders from our regular customers and partners who sell our products online. That’s the most important part of the business for us.
AS: I wouldn’t have thought that, interesting. I would have thought that the most important part would be the customers who actually visit you, whether they are tourists or locals.
TL: Direct sales, that’s maybe 10 percent of all the products we make, not even that. We make around 3,000 hand-forged knives a year, and we sell 300 of them here ourselves. Yes, that could work out.
AS: Great — then digitalization isn’t only disadvantageous! Thank you very much, Mr. Lampert, and I wish you all the best for the future!