BRUSSELS — Prestige leather goods are frequently among the priority items on the shopping lists of travelers who are going overseas.
Top quality luggage, handbags, attache cases and briefcases, and smaller personal accessories by Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci and other famous manufacturers are usually less costly in European cities, or airport duty-free shops, than they are in the United States.
They are easily attainable trophies of the traveling shopper. Those who are particularly savvy about leather goods look above all to Delvaux, Belgium's prestigious leather-goods manufacturer, for quality and leadership in design.
Delvaux, based in Brussels, is a household name in Belgium but less famous elsewhere. Unlike many of the world's other fine leather-goods manufacturers, Delvaux tends to shun publicity. The company is decidedly low-profile and decidedly exclusive.
Ownership of a Delvaux bag is special. The products, manufactured in limited quantity, are sought after. Only about 16,000 Delvaux handbags are made each year. The market could easily absorb more, but Delvaux bags are not mass-produced.
Each bag is treated as a work of art. It is made entirely by hand and worked on from start to finish by a team of three craftsmen, including a master and two apprentices. Each bag takes hours of intensive, hands-on labor. All Delvaux leather workers must complete the company's exacting apprenticeship program to develop adequate skills.
Each year the company introduces its new line of about 40 items, including handbags, wallets, key holders and other accessories. Characteristically, Delvaux's line, developed by its team of designers, is innovative and sculptural. The material most frequently used is supple and durable calf obtained from top-quality tanneries in Italy, France and Germany, but exotic leathers such as crocodile and ostrich are also used.
Unique Woven Pattern
Additionally, Delvaux has designed its own pattern of woven leather. It is made of narrow strips of gray, brown and tan leather that are bound together by extremely strong black threads. The result is a durable leather "material" that is cut and used as if it were a piece of hide.
The distinctive striped look is exclusive to Delvaux, and all of the "material" is made in the Brussels workshop to protect the pattern from being copied. The woven material is lighter weight than regular leather and is used to make wonderful luggage and carryalls as well as handbags and other accessories.
The working of the leather is fascinating. First the hide is stretched and evened. Then it is cut and shaped, and edges are shaved and pressed so they may be fitted together exactly. Every seam is stitched by hand.
In Delvaux's designs the leather is folded into ingeniously shaped flaps, pockets and fastenings. A fashion coordinated palette of rich and unusual colors is introduced each year, but the collection also includes standards such as white, browns, navy and black.
The products are trademarked with a leather "D" that is incorporated into the design rather than printed on the leather or stamped onto a standard metal fastening.
All of the clasps and other ornamentation of Delvaux bags are made of solid brass plated with 24-karat gold. Artisans hand-make these fittings, often designed to incorporate the company's signature D.
The process of making the fastenings is exacting. The solid brass is sawed by hand, pieces are assembled, the brass is polished, then plated with nickel, then dipped in gold "flash" for exactly 33 seconds and in 24-karat gold-plate liquid for exactly 3 minutes 33 seconds.
The piece is polished and cleaned in eight baths to remove any residue. When finished, each piece of ornamentation has a one-milligram thickness of 24-karat gold. Each piece is polished until it glistens and is carefully wrapped for protection against scratches or smudges.
The firm's highly successful system of production has been developed through years of experience. Delvaux-Createur was founded in 1820, and its reputation for quality leather goods at fair prices grew rapidly.
Expansion of production was more gradual. In the early days the workshop employed only four craftsmen. Each artisan created his own bags from start to finish. The company survived World War I and continued extremely limited production through the difficult years that followed.
In 1933 Delvaux was taken over by Franz Schwennicke. He enlarged the workshop and augmented production. It was Schwennicke who began the apprenticeship program, which accepts only two apprentices a year. They are selected from hundreds of applicants, including those of already skilled leather artisans who would like to work for Delvaux and must complete the arduous apprenticeship program to be employed in the workshop.