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Box calf with a “flower” grain that invokes the basic nature of France.

The representative of French calf, which has continued to evolve since its first creation alongside the World Heritage town that gave birth to it. Take a look now at the so-called leather with a so-called fleur (“flower”) grain, created through links to the region and the natural aspect of France itself.

photographs_Takao Ohta
text_Yukihiro Sugawara

The statue of the Virgin Mary standing on those rocks was cast from melted down cannons, taken from the enemy after victory in the Crimean War. It sets a scene most suited a pilgrimage site with more than 1000 years of history.

The statue of the Virgin Mary standing on those rocks was cast from melted down cannons, taken from the enemy after victory in the Crimean War. It sets a scene most suited a pilgrimage site with more than 1000 years of history.

The Tanneries Du Puy building, located a little way off the main road. It is still the same building that was erected in the 50s.

The Tanneries Du Puy building, located a little way off the main road. It is still the same building that was erected in the 50s.

These work benches, located in the back of the factory, are where the leather is given a final inspection. Light is very important to this stage of the process.

These work benches, located in the back of the factory, are where the leather is given a final inspection. Light is very important to this stage of the process.

Creating leather with a fleur grain requires time consuming and delicate handling of the (raw) skins.

The raw skins after initial desalination. There is still hair and other matter attached.

The raw skins after initial desalination. There is still hair and other matter attached.

The workspace for handling the raw skins is thick with fat and salts. The factory handles 1100 skins per day.

The workspace for handling the raw skins is thick with fat and salts. The factory handles 1100 skins per day.

The salted calf skins being spread out. You can see how small they actually are.

The salted calf skins being spread out. You can see how small they actually are.

The drums used to remove things like salt and blood. The scale here is indicative of the big massive size of the operation as a whole.

The drums used to remove things like salt and blood. The scale here is indicative of the big massive size of the operation as a whole.

The skins after being washed. Surprisingly soft, perfectly suited to the expression “like a baby’s skin.” “We keep the quality of this skin all the way into the leather.” (Mr. Lebret)

The skins after being washed. Surprisingly soft, perfectly suited to the expression “like a baby’s skin.” “We keep the quality of this skin all the way into the leather.” (Mr. Lebret)

Among the elements that determine the quality of shoes, clearly one of the highest priorities is the leather that forms the upper. Calf leather, created from the skin of calves, has long been considered the material most suited for use in men’s dress shoes, especially in light of its versatility. Among the varieties on the market, French calf stands alongside German box as a watch-word for high quality calf leather, and is still used today in many high quality ready-to-wear shoes.
Furthermore, “DU PUY” is the tanner representative of French calf. Their full name is “TANNERIES DU PUY,” which directly translates to “the tanner of Puy.” This “Puy” refers to the old city of Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne region of France, and also the Notre-Dame du Puy cathedral that stands at the centre of the city. The cathedral is registered as a World Heritage site and is part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
All of this background information was learned after our visit, and so when actually heading from the airport into the city, we were quite in awe of the chapel and statue of the Virgin Mary atop the imposing rocks. It was easy to feel in that moment that the natural features of a region must surely have a large influence upon whatever is produced there.
The tannery is located slightly out of the city, along a major road. “It was built in 1950. (Editor’s note: All comments are relayed as stated. Some suggest it was built in 1948). We heightened our techniques through the 60s and 70s, and as a result became widely known as a maker of high quality box calf leather. The reason for our success is having such a rich supply of water nearby, and being able to obtain the highest quality French raw skins.” (Mr. Denis Lebret, factory supervisor)

A process in which time and a human eye are vital, determining the final quality of the leather.

Wet blue leather, piled on a rack and awaiting inspection. The quality rank is pretty much determined by this step.

Wet blue leather, piled on a rack and awaiting inspection. The quality rank is pretty much determined by this step.

A blemish has appeared on the surface. The amount of quality leather produced each year is falling, and cattle breeders and tanners are now all working together to try and create better quality products.

A blemish has appeared on the surface. The amount of quality leather produced each year is falling, and cattle breeders and tanners are now all working together to try and create better quality products.

The leather is numbered from the pelt stage, allowing for excellent traceability.

The leather is numbered from the pelt stage, allowing for excellent traceability.

The tanning process takes place in these large drums. This facility is on a totally different scale, even when compared to other tanners.

The tanning process takes place in these large drums. This facility is on a totally different scale, even when compared to other tanners.

After the hair has all been removed, the leather is washed. The white leather is often processed into shrink leather.

After the hair has all been removed, the leather is washed. The white leather is often processed into shrink leather.

After letting it “sit” and removing hair, the leather is washed in a vat to remove all liquid chemicals. In order to protect the rich and clean water system of the region, the factory uses a two-step water purifier.

After letting it “sit” and removing hair, the leather is washed in a vat to remove all liquid chemicals. In order to protect the rich and clean water system of the region, the factory uses a two-step water purifier.

The Auvergne region, where Le Puy-en-Velay is located, has always been rich in water, being the source for such mineral waters as “Volvic” and “Vichy.” Furthermore, France – like Italy – has a culture of eating veal. This is why high quality, domestically produced raw calf skins can be obtained.
“The eating of veal is quite unique to our culture. That’s why it is hard to buy [raw skins] from other countries.”
Mr. Lebret went on, “Of course, there are also differing levels among French calves. The breed of cow and the place they are reared are important, but more than anything, obtaining quality leather requires calves to have been raised on cow’s milk. That is what allows us to make with a fleur grain.”
This “fleur” of which he speaks is a term used to indicate the lustre of the grain on the surface of the leather. The realisation of this fleur involves many processes and a vast repository of knowhow within the factory.
After being allowed into the factory, we were first shown to where the salted raw skins are desalinated and the blood removed. Many of the raw skins were very small. After 16 hours in a fluid with a different concentration the salt is removed and the fat is then washed off, before a film coated with liquid chemicals is placed against the inside (flesh side) of the leather and it is left to sit.
“We let the liquid chemicals soak in from the inside of the raw skins, causing the pores to open over five hours, and then use a pit and water to, again very gently, remove the hair. We take all of this effort in order to maintain the “fleur”, which exists from the raw skin stage, through to the stage at which the hair has been removed.” (Mr. Lebret)
The processes from raw skin through to pre-tanning take an entire week, during which time the condition of the material is tirelessly checked. “Considering the massive size of the operation, the work requires more craftsmanship than you’d expect, right?” laughs Mr. Lebret, but even more than craftsmanship, one senses a delicacy of touch similar to that seen in those who handle perishables, such as the makers of cheese or wine.

After the film for removing hair from the back of the skin is attached to the raw skins, they are left to sit for around five hours. Each and every skin is carefully laid out.

After the film for removing hair from the back of the skin is attached to the raw skins, they are left to sit for around five hours. Each and every skin is carefully laid out.

The dyeing process, that comes after the tanning. Additional tanning is also performed in order to make the leather even softer. High quality leather is a combination of chemical values and the sensibilities of the workers.

The dyeing process, that comes after the tanning. Additional tanning is also performed in order to make the leather even softer. High quality leather is a combination of chemical values and the sensibilities of the workers.

Piles of wet blue leather. From here it is finished in accordance with orders from each client.

Piles of wet blue leather. From here it is finished in accordance with orders from each client.

Finishing is performed in various ways depending upon the client’s order. Much of this work is also performed by hand.

The dyed leather is dried, and then hung in a “humidity chamber” in order to moisturise it. “Triangular hanging” is used to prevent wrinkles or creases.

The dyed leather is dried, and then hung in a “humidity chamber” in order to moisturise it. “Triangular hanging” is used to prevent wrinkles or creases.

This kind of country grain is also a speciality of the company. “We receive lots of inquires about it from shoe makers in the UK.” (Mr. Lebret)

This kind of country grain is also a speciality of the company. “We receive lots of inquires about it from shoe makers in the UK.” (Mr. Lebret)

A design featuring the Beast of Gévaudan. A movie was made about this legend.

A design featuring the Beast of Gévaudan. A movie was made about this legend.

After drying all the way through to the core, moisture is carefully supplied. Trimming of the edges is also performed at this point in time.

After drying all the way through to the core, moisture is carefully supplied. Trimming of the edges is also performed at this point in time.

Processes such as shrinking are also performed after dyeing has been completed.

Processes such as shrinking are also performed after dyeing has been completed.

A sample of J.M. WESTON Boxanil found in the sample book. Many such samples are kept and referred to in order to create leather of equal quality.

A sample of J.M. WESTON Boxanil found in the sample book. Many such samples are kept and referred to in order to create leather of equal quality.

The leather is then placed inside one of the factory’s numerous large wooden drums, where it undergoes chrome tanning. “We have a variety of different drums, each with a different concentration. Leather that goes in on Friday is tanned until the following Thursday. The reason we take an entire week is, of course, for the fleur.”
Supervisors keep constant watch, changing the pH. Once the process is complete, the leather is dehydrated and reaches the state known as “wet blue.” It is then inspected. The final quality of the leather can pretty much be seen at this point, we are told. It is divided up into ranks depending on things like whether blood vessels can be seen on the surface and whether it is marked or blemished. Of course, box calf is the highest rank there is.
“After this, the kind of leather it is finished to varies depending on the client’s order.”
After dyeing, the processes to which the leather is subjected diversify greatly, depending on such surface processes as shrink leather or embossing, and the differences in thickness between bag leather and shoe leather, with each and every order being managed by its own slip. Each slip carries the name of a prominent and first-rate brand. Among them is J.M. WESTON, a company that is quite literally invested in the tannery. “They are a difficult customer,” jokes Mr. Lebret. The facts are, however, that only ten out of 100 pieces of leather might provide the kind of translucent box calf used in shoes. When, due to this very scarcity, TANNERIES DU PUY was faced with something of a business crisis, it was J.M. Weston – certainly not one of its biggest clients – who stood up and offered a buyout.

Mr. Denis Lebret (right) and President Daniel Lebard (left), who guided us around the factory. President Lebard is wearing a work coat stitched with the name of the tannery.

Mr. Denis Lebret (right) and President Daniel Lebard (left), who guided us around the factory. President Lebard is wearing a work coat stitched with the name of the tannery.

The surface of box calf has a lustrous grain. French leather workers call this the “fleur.”

The surface of box calf has a lustrous grain. French leather workers call this the “fleur.”

The thickness of the leather being measured. The standard thickness for bags is around 1.0mm, and around 1.2mm for shoes.

The thickness of the leather being measured. The standard thickness for bags is around 1.0mm, and around 1.2mm for shoes.

The leather being stretched by hand. Stretching is performed both by band and by machine, depending on the type of leather and the process being performed. This is the mechanical side to leather creation.

The leather being stretched by hand. Stretching is performed both by band and by machine, depending on the type of leather and the process being performed. This is the mechanical side to leather creation.

Another mechanical element, the application of pressure to the surface of the leather using a glass roller. Casein penetrates the leather, bringing forth the lustre.

Another mechanical element, the application of pressure to the surface of the leather using a glass roller. Casein penetrates the leather, bringing forth the lustre.

Once inspection has been completed the leather is laid out like this, and then delivered wrapped in the “TP” paper shown on the previous page.

Once inspection has been completed the leather is laid out like this, and then delivered wrapped in the “TP” paper shown on the previous page.

After the dyeing, the leather is dried and the density of its fibres heightened, before a complete change in direction places it in a humid room in order to gradually absorb some moisture. The next process is the individual stretching of each piece of leather, which also includes some work by hand. Again, each of these carefully performed steps is for the sake of the fleur. Part of the finishing also involves using glass rollers on the surface of the leather, allowing casein to penetrate the leather. The casein allows the leather to breathe and creates lustre.
“At this stage, there are 1,000 different processes, with different ones being performed based upon the client’s order for things like the feel of the surface and how it shines in the light.”
These comments from Mr. Lebret were immediately backed up by racks of leather, all of varying colours and with varying surface processes, packed into a brightly lit space. The inspections that take place here are first performed by a supervisor from the tannery, and then an inspector from the client comes and performs its own. In the case of J.M. WESTON, the order is for thickness between 1.2 – 1.4mm for shoes and 1.4 – 1.6mm for boots, translucent leather with just a casein and aniline finish.
“The most important thing is the fleur. While having translucency, the texture also means that once it is a shoe, bending your foot won’t cause it to get creased or wrinkled badly.” (Mr. Lebret)
Then, showing us a cross section of the leather, he explains it as follows. “You can see that below the layer of surface colour, there is this blue layer. It is this layer, infused with the particles of chrome, that brings the leather both its toughness and elasticity.” (Mr. Lebret)
This could indicate that the true quality of leather is not to be found on its surface.
Finally, the leather is completed by wrapping in paper printed with “TP” (for “TANNERIES DU PUY”). Above the TP logo, I noticed an illustration of what looked like a dog.
“That is the Beast of Gévaudan, a legendary beast in this region. I don’t actually know why we use it. Maybe as it is something characteristic of our region?” (Mr. Lebret)
In the moment I heard this explanation, I thought back to the Virgin Mary on her rock, and the cathedral. Then, in the background to leather making, I felt most strongly Le Puy-en-Velay, along with, front-and-centre, the cultural climate of France.

Mr. Denis Lebret (right) and President Daniel Lebard (left), who guided us around the factory. President Lebard is wearing a work coat stitched with the name of the tannery.

Mr. Denis Lebret (right) and President Daniel Lebard (left), who guided us around the factory. President Lebard is wearing a work coat stitched with the name of the tannery.

The surface of box calf has a lustrous grain. French leather workers call this the “fleur.”

The surface of box calf has a lustrous grain. French leather workers call this the “fleur.”

The thickness of the leather being measured. The standard thickness for bags is around 1.0mm, and around 1.2mm for shoes.

The thickness of the leather being measured. The standard thickness for bags is around 1.0mm, and around 1.2mm for shoes.

The leather being stretched by hand. Stretching is performed both by band and by machine, depending on the type of leather and the process being performed. This is the mechanical side to leather creation.

The leather being stretched by hand. Stretching is performed both by band and by machine, depending on the type of leather and the process being performed. This is the mechanical side to leather creation.

Another mechanical element, the application of pressure to the surface of the leather using a glass roller. Casein penetrates the leather, bringing forth the lustre.

Another mechanical element, the application of pressure to the surface of the leather using a glass roller. Casein penetrates the leather, bringing forth the lustre.

Once inspection has been completed the leather is laid out like this, and then delivered wrapped in the “TP” paper shown on the previous page.

Once inspection has been completed the leather is laid out like this, and then delivered wrapped in the “TP” paper shown on the previous page.

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