The World of Beretta: Lock, Stock, and Apparel

A new generation gives one of the world's oldest family-owned companies a shot of 21st-century style. Jo Durden-Smith reports.

One day in the early 1980s, the CEO of the French spirits company Marie Brizard had an idea for a club. He called it Les Hénokiens, after the prophet Enoch who, having lived on earth for 365 years, according to the association's literature, "did not die but was taken up into heaven." The rules governing club membership were simple: To qualify, a company had to be more than 200 years old (like Marie Brizard); in good standing; and still in the hands of the family that founded it. The number of Enochians is now at 31, among them a hotel in Japan (dating from 718); a glass company in Murano; and the French winemaker Louis Latour. But the biggest and most powerful of The Enochians is the arms company Fabbrica d'Armi Pietro Beretta, now run by the 14th and 15th generation of Berettas. The 16th, five-year-old American-born Carlo Gussalli Beretta, is waiting in the wings.

Beretta owns arms-producing plants in Spain, Finland, and the United States, as well as in Italy. But today it also has luxury boutiques (the company's preferred term is "galleries") in Paris and Buenos Aires, in Highland Park Village in Dallas, and in a family-owned townhouse on Madison Avenue. In the hands of current president Ugo Beretta and his two sons, Pietro and Franco, it has increasingly moved away from military production into the manufacture of precision sporting and competition weapons, as well as a range of sumptuous, hunt-inspired outdoorwear for both men and women. Its operational nerve center and main factory, though, is still in the place where the story of the Berettas began: in Gardone, near the city of Brescia in northern Italy, in what's been called the Silicon Valley of the Renaissance.

"On this, the 3rd Day of October 1526," reads a document of account held in the Venetian archives, "[To] Master Bartolomeo Beretta of the Brescian territory of Gardone for 185 arquebus barrels [made] for Our House of the Arsenal, 296 ducati." This is the first official record of the Berettas of the Trompia Valley, a place which, fed by iron ore and timber from the mountains and powered by the waters of the Mella River, became the most important region in Italy for the production of the relatively new technology of guns. (One valley over, it's said, the forges stayed with swords and armor.) According to medieval custom—turned later into law by the Venetian Republic—only the son of a master craftsman like Bartolomeo could himself become a master. So the Beretta business passed steadily from father to son over the years. It made gun barrels for the Venetian Senate and the kings of Naples; cannons for Napoleon; and sporting guns for the imperial Hapsburgs of Austria. But it wasn't until the beginning of the last century, when Pietro—the grandfather and great-grandfather of the current Berettas—took over, that the company became a major international concern.

Pietro, who ran Beretta for 54 years, transformed what was still essentially an artisanal manufacturer into a mechanized world competitor, producing everything from automatic weapons and the first true submachine guns to the .25 caliber Beretta pistol famously favored by James Bond. He more than tripled the size of the Gardone plant, and increased the work force from 130 to 1,500. He built housing for his workers near the plant; a nursery and a summer camp for their children; and apartments on the Adriatic Sea for their vacations. With their help, he also built a new home for his own family on the factory grounds, a four-story neo-Gothic villa with Renaissance details and a Renaissance-style garden, its rooms paneled in walnut (the wood used for gunstocks), and its cement walls shot through with rods of steel. He meant this to be a symbol of the family's abiding commitment to the gun trade and to the people of the valley—a commitment still expressed every two years in a lunch for workers who are awarded medals for 25, 35, even 40 years' service. This year's event hosted more than half of Beretta's 1,000 local employees.

It's in the villa, one early spring day, that the men of the Beretta family gather, while Signora Beretta, wife of Ugo, mother of Franco and Pietro, is at the family vineyard, Lo Sparviere ("The Sparrow Hawk"), 30 minutes away. Ugo, a stocky 65-year-old with the look of the actor Broderick Crawford, has been president of the company since the death of his uncle Giuseppe in 1993; and he has just returned from a meeting in Washington, D.C. (the Model 92 Beretta pistol was adopted as the official sidearm of the U.S. armed forces in 1985). Pietro, the elder brother and the managing director of Beretta Holdings, is taking time off from meetings with bankers and economists, while Franco, who's responsible for the Gardone operation as well as for the American plants, the galleries, and Beretta's lines of outerwear and accessories, is paying one of his regular visits from the United States, where he lives with his wife, Umberta, and their son, Carlo.

Ugo and Pietro are clearly cut from the same cloth, with dark hair and pear-shaped faces, while Franco has the fair look and smiling charm of his mother, a Belgian whose great-grandfather was the mayor of Nice. All three men share a deep-rooted knowledge of Beretta's main product—in fact, they could be said to represent, in their different ways, the predilections of their top-of-the-line customers. Ugo is a celebrated big-game hunter. He wears a bracelet carved from an elephant's heel pad; and on a table in the main drawing room of the villa are arranged five specially engraved gold Zippo lighters honoring the "Big Five" he's claimed in expeditions with the likes of General Norman Schwarzkopf: elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo. Franco, who was given his first shotgun before age ten, prefers "challenge sports and competition pistol." Pietro enjoys every kind of shooting, especially the fast-moving challenge of birds. "The kind of deer stalking they do in Scotland is a little bit slow, maybe a little too long-distance, for me," he says over lunch in the villa's private dining room. "I much prefer duck in Argentina, snow goose in Maryland, and black cock and woodcock in Belarus."

Franco, who has degrees in business and political science, is the most outgoing. But he's quick to credit his father for Beretta's luxury profile and current high standing in the American market. "My father was completely responsible for the acceptance of the Beretta Model 92 as the the U.S. forces' handgun," he says. "It was a very difficult and emotional business, since it was taking over from an American icon: the Colt. But getting the contract helped to establish us in the States." Ugo also diversified the Beretta operation, buying companies that produced target pistols, competition rifles, shotguns, and antique replica guns. He expanded the metal-engraving and special-order departments at Gardone, turning the clock back to the time when sporting weapons were made entirely by hand; and in the mid-1980s he established Beretta Sport to provide outdoor clothing and accessories. (The "Sport" has since been dropped.) "Then he did something which still surprises me a little," says Franco. "He handed Beretta Sport over to me. Later, when the time seemed right for us to go into retail for ourselves, with a complete range of products, and the Madison Avenue townhouse became available, he simply bought it—more or less on sight. That's the advantage of being a family company. Decisions can be made very fast."

The Manhattan store and the one in Dallas' Highland Park Village stand cheek by jowl with some of the most famous luxury-retail names on earth: Hermès, Chanel, Calvin Klein, Polo Ralph Lauren. Primarily, of course, the Beretta shops are designed for gun aficionados: for the close to 50 percent of American safari hunters who live in Texas, for example, and for the New York-based executives who are among the million or so U.S. citizens who shoot trap. But these are no ordinary gun shops. What they provide is definitely haute couture: competition and sporting weapons as beautifully engraved and precision-engineered as any Rolex.

But it's not just guns anymore. Surrounding the firearms is a panoply of clothes and accessories, not only for the hunt and competition, but also—as Tino Girombelli, day-to-day manager of Beretta's clothing and accessories division, puts it—"for going to a football match or walking in a wood or traveling into the city." There are beautiful shirts, sweaters, jackets, and pants; leather bags and cases; watches, hunting knives, even desk sets—all specially commissioned and made to the same exacting standards you see in the guns. What is offered here, in other words, is no fantasy version of country living, but very much the real thing. It's no surprise to hear that the manager of the Gardone plant climbs the highest mountain in the nearby Columbine range every so often, partly for exercise and partly to try out new clothes and footwear for Beretta.

"From the beginning of Beretta Sport we tended to stick with what we knew," says Franco. "But we've now moved in a slightly different direction, from during-the-hunt to after-the-hunt, inspired by English and French traditions. Some classic lines remain unchanged. But with our two collections wetry to add a fun twist in new design or materials. In everything we do we try to marry technology, precision, and style."

The heart of this marriage is the modern building on the factory grounds in Gardone known as Beretta Due, where Beretta's sporting, competition, and presentation weapons are produced. On the top floor is the engraving studio and school, presided over by Giulio Timpini, an impish, bespectacled man with floppy silvering hair whose family, he announces happily, has been working for Beretta for well over 200 years. For 20 minutes or so, Timpini, watched by one of his young students, demonstrates his extraordinary art, at first scoring tiny lines into a soft steel block that turn almost miraculously into trees and animals. Next he inlays gold wire, hammering it into a prepared crisscross of striations; then, his engraver's bulino still in hand, he moves to a table where finished breech casings are gathered. "Depending on the complexity of the design," he says, picking one up, engraved with hunting scenes surrounded by fantastical scrollwork, "the work can take anywhere from a hundred to six hundred hours—almost four months for one worker! You see?" he says, as he opens a drawer to show some early versions of previous commissions. "An owner's pair of dogs, like this one; or a hunter with his wife." Each one, but for the modern dress and the breed of dog, looks as if it could have been ordered for a Sforza or a Medici.

Timpini then opens a book filled with reproductions of cave etchings found in the Italian Alps. He leafs through until he finds a picture of the prehistoric tools the etchers used. "There," he says triumphantly, pointing to the page and holding up his own bulino. "Almost exactly what we use ourselves—and 4,000 years old!"

In an adjacent building, Timpini's dizzyingly intricate masterpieces are finally joined to the guns they're made for. This is the finishing floor, a gathering of workbenches and racks where the crafts of the gunmakers and embellishers come together, where barrels in different configurations, patterned and decorated stocks, minutely engraved breeches and action mechanisms are fitted together into weapons as carefully tailored to the customer as a bespoke suit. The floor, in fact, is like a cross between a Savile Row atelier and a precision laboratory—it has something of the atmosphere of each, filled as it is with the banter of old colleagues secure in their craft.

It's hard for a visitor not to be seduced by this air of familiarity and serene self-confidence, especially given the fact that what's being assembled here are really extraordinary works of art whose lineage dates to the Renaissance. Beretta, it's generally agreed, has in the past decade or so brought to perfection the "over and under" shotgun, just as English gunmakers perfected the "side-by-side" in the last years of the 19th century. But whatever form these guns take—rifles or elephant guns or target weapons—they are supremely beautiful objects.

One corner of the floor is set aside for top shooters: the competition marksman and markswoman. The weapons produced here, after long "fittings," are carefully calibrated extensions of the shooter's physique. Beretta sponsors the Italian and Czech Republic national teams; its guns have already won nine Olympic gold medals; and this whole enterprise was until June run by former Olympic champion Marco Conti (now a Beretta sales representative). Similarly, the New York store's gun department is run by big-game hunter Peter L. Horn. These executives are part of what one soon recognizes in Gardone as Beretta's "larger" family, brought together by love of sport, good living, and fine things.

In this sense, Beretta's clothing line is a perfect extension of the Beretta enterprise. Tino Girombelli not only has a solid background in fashion (his uncle discovered Gianni Versace and his brother runs the bespoke tailor L. Duca) but he's also a keen hunter. So is chief designer Ugo Valentini, who was hired away from Capaldio, the Tuscan outerwear manufacturer. The clothes they produce are both immensely stylish and utterly practical. Girombelli travels the world, he says, "in search of new materials and new treatments to make the wearer completely comfortable in every possible kind of environment. And then we add," he continues, nodding in the direction of Valentini, "our own glamour of design."

The result, in the autumn-winter 2002 collection, for example, is a range of men's jackets with a sophisticated look but with a variety of different qualities. All the jackets have the same distribution of pockets, so the wearer can instinctively feel his way around them; and all have an identical system of internal straps, which allows them to be wrapped up and worn on the shoulder, with pockets available, or carried in the hand like a duffel. One particular model, thermally insulated and made from a microfiber Gore-Tex fabric, is designed to make no noise at all; another, in fleece, allows the body to breathe but fully repels the wind and rain. Seams are heat-sealed for the same reason; there are flaps over the pockets and double zips. "They are both aesthetic and technical," says Girombelli, "allowing the wearer to remain elegant even if he has to spend ten hours outside in the cold or the rain."

Other jackets, some in treated corduroy or moleskin, have shoulder vents or a zipped central vent, allowing for easy movement. There are elegant quilted jackets for informal townwear; and an assortment of heavier coats; one, with a removable fleece, Girombelli attacks with a pin. "See? Completely thornproof," he announces gleefully.

All along the racks in the Gardone studio-showroom there are variations on this theme of modern materials wedded to traditional elegant design. Hunters tend to be a conservative group—they prefer what they have tried and tested. But in almost every case, the hunting jackets, coats, and trousers—in camouflage colors or German Loden—have been reborn in high-tech form. Even the sort of venerable breech suit that one sees on British fells and moors comes in a specially treated tweed.

The overall effect is a subtle marriage of aristocratic chic, Italian brio, and familiar, well-used English country-house clothing, but created in materials that will leave the wearer unruffled and pristine come hell or high water. This is nowhere clearer than in the womenswear lines for autumn- winter 2002—a relatively new Beretta departure. Here there are shaped, many-pocketed tweed jackets, an elegant variation on the English riding jacket, as well as languorous soft sweaters and scarves and shirts in, among other materials, alpaca, silk, and cashmere, which can only be called "après-hunt." But even here there are innovations. "Look!" says Girombelli, pouncing on a display of sport shirts. "What do you think this is made of? It's half cotton, half wood fiber, and just feel how soft it is!"

For some reason, this makes me think immediately of Renaissance portraits in which grandees of both sexes are caparisoned for the hunt: on horseback or with hawk on hand, dressed sumptuously, with not a hair out of place. Hunting then—as now—was a real (and important) pastime, but it was also part of a larger theater in which luxury, tradition, prestige, and exotic new materials all played essential roles.These things continue to be Beretta's stock in trade; and though England's King Henry VIII, for example, may never have worn Beretta clothes, he certainly possessed elaborately engraved weapons of the sort still produced in Giulio Timpini's workshop—and he could well have owned a Beretta-barreled arquebus. The Tudors, the Sforzas, and the Medicis, in other words, may have disappeared—and our notion of what makes a grandee may have changed completely—but the Berettas of Val Trompia are still about their same old business.

Master of the Hunt

Peter Horn, a manager of Beretta's New York shop and leader of many of the company's hunting expeditions, loves a good story. A professional hunter who holds world records in shooting bongo (an African antelope), Horn was asked in 1993 by his old friend Ugo Beretta to recommend someone who knew "about guns, hunting, and the upper echelons of New York City." Horn, 56, who had been contemplating moving upstate to breed dogs, took the job himself. A year later, Beretta opened its Manhattan store, and soon Horn was leading expeditions, taking captains of industry bear hunting in Romania or goose hunting in Argentina.

He's had a few scrapes along the way. Once, in Ethiopia, an elephant nearly fell on him. Another time, when he was leading a two-country shooting trip, his second destination, the Carpathian Mountains in the Ukraine, had terrible floods. "I got a fax that said: 'worst floods in 100 years. Do not know if can get in to areas.' But I said 'we're coming anyway,'" he recalls. "Luckily, we got military trucks to take us in, because I knew one of the colonels. We were shooting pheasant. I had people like Jim Clark [founder of Netscape], and other heavy boys on this trip."

Horn organizes about eight major hunting trips a year, and goes on half of them. The safaris usually last a week, include four to ten clients, and cost between $7,000 and $10,000 per gun. His skills as a social director are as important as his hunting expertise. "If I have five people from Morgan Stanley and five people from a firm in the Midwest," he says, "I make sure all ten of these guys will get along."
—Jackie Cooperman

Beretta, 718 Madison Avenue, 212-319-3235; fax 212-207-8219.

Jo Durden-Smith also wrote about Tolstoy's country estate in this issue.