Monocle cracks the mysterious and intriguing world of safes and vaults by paying a visit to family-owned locksmiths Parma Antonio & Figli. Fortuitously the Italian economic situation is working in their favour.
It’s no secret today’s topsy-turvy economy has made investors jittery and financial institutions anxious. In crisis-hit Italy, where cash is still favoured over credit cards when making payments, households are particularly keen to find a secure spot to stash their banknotes. For locksmiths Parma Antonio & Figli, it’s a perfect opportunity.
Headquartered just north of Milan since 1870, the family-owned manufacturer of safes and vaults makes money protecting other people’s valuables. On a tour of its assembly line, Parma’s managing director Giorgio Amedeo explains the economic downturn has offered the security firm a silver lining. “During the crisis we’ve seen a 20 per cent increase from private individuals who need to secure their possessions. People are nervous,” Amedeo says.
In its early years, Parma won contracts from high-profile clients for its impenetrable vaults. The Vatican, central banks and the Italian royal family were just a few institutions lining up for its products – one financial company near Genoa still uses a 60-tonne vault door Parma made in 1929. Today, the bulk of its business revolves around the firm’s line of safes, the heaviest weighing over 3,000kg, deposit boxes and night safes. Still, special commissions are not uncommon. Recent jobs include made-to-measure vaults for companies handling artwork and a Renzo Piano-designed bank that required a 35-tonne circular secure door. The firm does €13m in sales annually.
Walking past workmen in blue overalls inspecting the welding on a steel cage ordered by an anti-doping lab to store samples, MONOCLE is led outside by operations manager Emanuele Parma, who, together with brother Alberto, represents the fourth generation in the family business. He points to a dirty cement maker, part of the company’s secret formula to construct impregnable lockboxes. “The cement lines the walls of the safe and, depending on the model, we mix the cement with different materials: bauxite, aluminium, graphite, et cetera. Each has a specific defensive function to protect the safe from attack, whether it’s gas, an explosive device or a drill.”
Besides being covered in resistant manganese steel, Parma safes are protected by combination locks developed in-house. “These are four-number combinations, so the solutions run into the millions. It’s 70-year-old know-how that has never been cracked,” adds Amedeo, showing off the locksmith bench where dials and discs are hand assembled and tested. Together with the mechanical lock, clients can choose numeric keypads or use traditional keys. In addition, banks and diplomatic corps can order systems to monitor the opening of safes remotely via the internet to keep tabs on staff.
Next to the locksmiths, Emanuele Parma shows off a night safe in gunmetal grey that carries the firm’s logo, the Great Sphinx of Giza that his great-grandfather chose to represent the brand. “The sphinx is universal,” adds Parma. “It’s the keeper of secrets. There’s nothing more secret than what’s inside your safe.”
Steel sheets up to 2cm thick are laser-cut to make wall panels and other safe components.
A four-man team begins assembly by hand-welding edges and corners.
Safe walls are lined with one of seven cement mixtures prepared on site and left to dry for 24 hours.
Steel keys, bronze mechanical combination locks and electronic keypads made in-house undergo testing.
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Founded in 1764, Sweden’s Gunnebo has morphed from a humble maker of nails into a €650m conglomerate that works to keep cash safely under wraps. The company’s key holdings include UK-based Chubbsafes and French locksmith giant Fichet-Bauche.
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