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Basic gear from mid-twentieth-century Italy: Cressi

Discussion in 'History of Diving Gear' started by David Wilson, Feb 9, 2020.

  1. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

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    map-of-italy-max.jpg
    Heading south now from Scandinavia, we cross the Alps to Italy (administrative map above), bathed by the Mediterranean Sea, which the Romans called "mare nostrum", Latin for "our sea", in ancient times.

    I have decided to break down my review of this country's early history of basic diving equipment manufacturing into several threads as I did in the case of the United Kingdom, where I live in retirement. A single Italian thread covering every period manufacturer there risks becoming an excessively elongated affair, raising obstacles to the addition of new information whenever it comes to light.

    I am starting with one of Italy's most famous diving equipment manufacturers, Cressi, headquartered in Genoa, capital of the Mediterranean province of Liguria in northern Italy with the French Riviera to the west, Piedmont to the north, Emilia-Romagna to the east and Tuscany to the south. According to the firm's website at 1930 -1940, Cressi is "the oldest scuba diving equipment company worldwide", founded by Egidio and Nanni Cressi, in 1938, when the two brothers began handcrafting the first masks and spearfishing guns.

    For information about the early history of Cressi, I am indebted to Cressi, un leggenda italiana nel mondo • Ocean 4 Future [Cressi, an Italian world legend]. Here is a rough translation of the first few paragraphs:

    Who has never worn a Cressi mask or fins? We probably all started with this equipment, which came into existence in Genoa, home of the diving industry. The best ideas do come into existence within a group of friends. So it was, before World War II broke out, that Egidio Cressi, bank clerk and passionate underwater fisherman, joined two other historical individuals, Duilio Marcante and Dario Gonzatti, and began experimenting with the first rudimentary tools for underwater hunting and selling them to a limited clientèle.

    The Cressi brothers and Marcante knew each other and dived before the war, but it was immediately after the cessation of hostilities that they were able to bring their dream to fruition. They worked night and day in the first Cressi workshop in Quinto. It all began following a chance meeting between Duilio Marcante, who was a municipal police officer at the time, and Egidio Cressi, a bank employee, who was passionate about underwater fishing. This meeting when they exchanged anecdotes about underwater fishing turned into a collaboration between the two that would last a lifetime.

    Together they launched a cottage industry constructing diving masks and guns. Marcante was reported to have made the springs necessary for future spring-loaded rifles on the lathe. During the war, the bank offered Egidio Cressi a transfer to another location, but he refused. The idea did not appeal to him because he would lose touch with the sea and with his underwater customer-friends. It seemed crazy, it was certainly not the best time to start a new business, but fortune favours the bold and the "Cressi Sub - Il Pescatore Subacqueo" [Cressi Sub: The Underwater Fisherman] company was founded in 1946 by Egidio and his brother Giovanni Battista, who was known as "Nanni".
     
  2. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

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    So much for the early company history of Cressi sub. Let's focus now on the firm's basic product range during the vintage era of diving, beginning with underwater masks. Here is a pre-war image of Egidio Cressi wearing single-lens goggles enclosing his eyes but excluding his nose:
    dei-suoi-primi-fucili-prova_la_maschera_monogogle-priva-di-alloggiamento-per-il-naso-da-Internet.jpg
    And below is an example of an early nose-enclosing Cressi diving mask:
    25f-Esemplare-maschera.preview-e1580401694282.png

    According to the Cressi website, "the first Cressi mask, the Sirena, was hand crafted in 1943. It remained in the catalogue, with various updates, for more than 30 years". The Sirena was named after the Sirens of Greek mythology, who "lured nearby sailors (such as Ulysses below) with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their Mediterranean island" (Siren (mythology) - Wikipedia):
    800px-Ulysses_And_The_Sirens_by_L%C3%A9on_Belly.jpg

    And here is the Sirena in the very first Cressi catalogue to appear after the Cressi company was officially founded in Genoa in 1946:
    CATALOGO CRESSI 1947 - 7_risultato_risultato - cropped.jpg
    Rough translation: "'Sirena' model. Comes without a breathing tube. Type A, small size, 700 lire. Type B, medium or normal size, 800 lire. Type C, large size, 900 lire."

    Not bad at all for 1947, an underwater mask available in three separate sizes: Small, Medium and Large. How many diving masks come in three differently-sized versions nowadays? But the Cressi Sirena's extensive coverage of the sides of the head must be its most distinctive feature in the eyes of today's low-volume mask wearers. Compare the Cressi catalogue drawing above with the masks worn by the young snorkellers at the seaside in the Netherlands in these Wikipedia photographs taken in 1959:
    Zwemmen_langs_het_Noordzeestrand_met_snorkel_en_zwemvliezen%2C_Bestanddeelnr_910-6175.jpg
    Zwemmen_langs_het_Noordzeestrand_met_snorkel_en_zwemvliezen%2C_Bestanddeelnr_910-6178.jpg
    I cannot confirm, however, that the wide-strapped mask worn by the fair-haired snorkeller is a Cressi Sirena, but it's a reasonable hypothesis.

    I'll finish there for today and next time attempt to trace the evolution of the Cressi Sirena mask from its quirky hand-crafted beginnings to its later mainstream design. Stay tuned, and please do chime in with comments, corrections, reminiscences etc. I don't want this thread to be a monologue on my part.:)
     
  3. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

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    Here's how the 1963 Cressi catalogue presented the Sirena mask:
    CATALOGO CRESSI - 1953 - 4.jpg
    CATALOGO CRESSI - 1953 - 5 - cropped.jpg
    Rough translation: "The 'SIRENA' mask (Figure 1) is one of the cheaper models, very low in volume and suitable for (seasoned) spearfishermen and beginners alike. Forms a perfect seal so long as the right size is chosen. Made in two fittings: small and medium. The lower size may be preferable to the larger option.

    Figure 2 illustrates the Sirena worn with a separate Cressi Delfino breathing tube attached to the mask strap. Fitting appears to have become an issue by 1953, hence the reduction from three (Small, Medium, Large) to two (Small, Medium) sizes as well as the advice to match the smallest possible size to a given head shape, presumably with the aim of achieving the best possible watertight face seal.
     
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  4. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

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    The Sirena was inexplicably absent from the 1955 Cressi catalogue, eventually reemerging during the mid-1960s with a more contemporary look:
    Sirena_1960s.jpg
    Sirena_1966.jpg
    The second Sirena mask image above can be found in Cressi Price List No. 43 of 1966. The Italian adjective "bicolore" in parentheses identifies this version as a dual colour product. The caption makes no reference either to the shortening of the sides of the mask body or to the relocation of the strap buckles closer to the front lens. You may recall me citing the Cressi website as saying "the first Cressi mask, the Sirena, was hand crafted in 1943. It remained in the catalogue, with various updates, for more than 30 years". My own catalogue-based research leads me to doubt any claim that the Sirena mask remained intact and in continuous production for over three decades.

    So much for the Cressi Sirena. I'll return in a few days to review a similar Cressi mask named "Sommazzatore", which is Italian for "diver".
     
  5. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

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    On to the Cressi Sommozzatore mask, which appeared thus in the 1947 Cressi catalogue:
    Sommozzatore_1947.png
    Boasting a "brevettato" (patented) design, the model came in medium size only in two versions: Type A with no built-in snorkel and Type B with a single breathing tube. Today we are focusing on Type A, leaving the Cressi range of masks with integrated snorkels for another occasion.
    catalogo-cressi-1947-7_risultato_risultato-cropped-jpg.566958.jpg
    The 1947 Sommozzatore covered the sides of the head almost as extensively as the Sirena (above) did back then.
     
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  6. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

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    The Sommozzatore mask reappeared in the 1953 Cressi catalogue with the following image accompanied by a more detailed caption:
    CATALOGO CRESSI - 1953 - 8 - cropped.jpg
    Italian: "L’occhiale SOMMOZZATORE (senza respiratore, fig. 10) è l’occhiale per la profondità. Ha spessori di gomma progressivi e razionali atti a sostenere la pressione dell’acqua, evitando la deformazione e la compressione del vetro sul naso e sulla fronte durante l’immersione in profondità. Tutta la pressione viene ad essere distribuita sul viso in modo uniforme, dando massima aderenza e quindi tenuta all’acqua. Un buon pescatore che raggiunga quote da 10-12 metri in su trova nell’occhiale Sommozzatore un’ottima realizzazione. E’ usato dalla maggior parte dei partecipanti alle gare subacquee ed ha consentito immersioni a 25 m. ed oltre con piena soddisfazione. Il tipo senza respiratore può essere usato col respiratore « Delfino » mentre il tipo con respiratore lo ha incorporato in sè come il tipo Medusa. Il « Sommozzatore » viene costruito in misura grande.
    Rough translation: "SOMMOZZATORE goggles (without a breathing tube, Fig. 10) are the goggles for deep depths. Rubber thickness is graduated and rationalised to withstand water pressure, avoiding deformation and compression of the glass on the nose and forehead during deep dives. All pressure is distributed evenly on the face, ensuring maximum grip and therefore keeping water out. A good fish-hunter reaching depths of 10-12 metres and more in Sommozzatore goggles is an excellent achievement. It is used by most participants in underwater competitions and has enabled them to dive to 25 m. and beyond with full satisfaction. The model without a breathing tube can be used with the “Delfino” snorkel, while the model with the breathing tube comes with the latter built in as is the case with the Medusa model. The “Sommozzatore” is supplied in a large fitting.

    Note the reference to the Sommozzatore as a specialist mask for deep diving. During the early 1950s, concerns were raised about the possibility of masks collapsing onto their wearers' faces under the action of water pressure at depth. So period masks often came with reinforced bodies and extended skirts to withstand the pressure and to distribute it more evenly over the front and the sides of the head.
     
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  7. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

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    And now for the Sommozzatore's product illustration and description in the 1955 Cressi catalogue:
    CRESSI-Catalogo-1955---8 - cropped.jpg
    Italian: "SOMMOZZATORE. E’ stato il primo tipo di maschera a risolvere particolari esigenze dell’immersione in profondità. Costruito con profili e spessori razionali, atti alla pressione. Massima aderenza, appoggio ben distribuito su tutto il viso, ottima tenuta, particolarmente indicata per nasi pronunciati. Per impiego generico e particolarmente per il fondo. In una sola misura: C (grande).
    Official Cressi translation: "SOMMOZZATORE. This was the first type of mask to answer to the particular requirements of deep immersion. Made with rational profile and thickness, adapted to pressure. Maximum adherence, fits well over the face, is very water-tight and particularly indicated to pronounced noses. For general use and especially deep immersion. In one size only: C (large).
    My translation: "SOMMOZZATORE. This was the first type of mask to comply with the particular requirements of deep diving. Made with a rational profile and thickness, capable of withstanding pressure. Maximum grip, support well distributed over the face, excellent seal and particularly suitable for pronounced noses. For general use and for deeep diving in particular. Available in one size only: C (large).

    So the Sommozzatore was hailed as the ideal solution for spearfishermen who wanted to dive deeper in quest of their prey without experiencing mask squeeze. The Sommozzatore's high internal volume also benefited underwater hunters with noses prominent enough to brush against the inside of the glass when using lower-volume models.

    Some time after 1955, Cressi must have discontinued production of the Sommozzatore, which was conspicuous by its absence from 1960s catalogues. At http://www.cg-45.com/downloads/download.php?file=Magazines/HDS ITALIA/HDS NOTIZIE 21.pdf, in the journal of the Historical Diving Society of Italy, Fabio Vitale described the similarities and differences between the Sirena and Sommozzatore masks thus (my translation): "The Sirena mask was made of thin blue or red rubber. The Sommozzatore mask was similar, but made of thicker rubber and fitted with a band to retain the lens."

    Next time we'll be focusing on the Cressi Ostrica mask, Stay tuned!
     
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  8. NothingClever

    NothingClever Barracuda

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    These historical posts are simply gold.

    I’m very grateful for the efforts you are taking to contribute to the overall quality of scubaboard.com and I can’t over-emphasize what a distinguishing difference these posts make.
     
    David Wilson likes this.
  9. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

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    Many thanks, NothingClever. That means a lot to me.

    As a postscript and bonus to the Cressi Sirena postings, here's an image of the earliest version of the mask I chanced upon this morning on Amazon of all places:
    Cressi_Sirena_Amazon2.jpg Just look at those lateral extensions to the Sirena mask body!:) It's good to see a surviving real-life example of Cressi's first diving mask in its Mediterranean blue camouflage as well as the monochrome product diagrams in historical catalogues.
     
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  10. David Wilson

    David Wilson Loggerhead Turtle

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    Now let's proceed to Cressi's Ostrica mask. Here's how the mask made its début in the 1953 Cressi catalogue:
    CATALOGO CRESSI - 1953 - 9 - cropped.jpg
    Italian: "Cressi Ostrica. Una delle ultime creazioni in campo occhiali è il tipo «OSTRICA» (Fig. 13). Costruito secondo fondamentali principi tecnici ha rivelato eccezionali doti di visibilità congiunto ad un’adesività particolare, (che ne ha suggerito il nome), riducendo al minimo il volume interno. Da molti esperti è ritenuto superiore al Sommozzatore stesso, che è stato fino ad ora considerato il migliore e più indicato occhiale per la pesca subacquea. La costruzione 1953, grazie a particolari accorgimenti costruttivi realizzati nella sagomatura del bordo di adesione, ha notevolmente aumentata l’ermeticità della tenuta e la comodità d’indossamento. L’Ostrica, costruito in due misure: media e grande, può essere munito di membrana interna per agevolare la compensazione della pressione."
    Rough translation: "Cressi Ostrica. One of the latest designs in goggles is the “OSTRICA” model (Fig. 13). Made in accordance with basic engineering principles, it has proved exceptional in combining visibility with a particular grip (hence its name “Ostrica”, Italian for “Oyster”), while reducing internal volume to a minimum. Many experts consider it superior to the Sommozzatore itself, which until now has passed for the best and most suitable googles for underwater fishing. Thanks to particular design features applied when reshaping the sealing edge, the 1953 design comes with significantly increased watertightness and wearing comfort. Made in in two sizes, Medium and Large, the Ostrica may be fitted with an inner membrane to ease pressure compensation."

    Note how the caption associates the product name "Ostrica", Italian for "oyster", with the product specification of a snug-fitting watertight sealing edge. These decorative features of a real-life Ostrica almost labour the point:
    img003041C.jpg
     
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