PICTURES: Greg Mandy, Spoke
ine miles north of Birmingham, in the heart of the UK’s West Midlands, Walsall is a market town of limited proportions, yet its heritage in the leather trade dates back centuries, all the way to the Middle Ages. Until the mass production of the internal combustion engine in the early 20th century there were more than three million horses in the UK, and many of the UK’s finest leather saddles and harnesses were made in Walsall.
“There used to be 20,000 people in Walsall employed by the leather industry, either by tanneries, saddle manufacturers or other associated trades, but now there are only a few hundred,” starts Robert Ettinger, chairman and CEO of Ettinger, the luxury leather goods company founded by his father, Gerry, in 1934. There are only a handful of leather goods makers left in Walsall today, but Ettinger’s factory—which opened under different ownership in 1890—is still going strong.
“A lot of the leather business went to the Far East where it is cheaper to produce and where the quality is passable,” explains Ettinger, who oversees premises in Walsall and London, where the company was established. “Because Ettinger has always been at the top end of the leather goods market in London we could afford to continue production in the UK—and we still are here today.”
Gary Billingham is factory manager at Ettinger. “Walsall is a leather town,” he states. “When I came into the trade there were probably 80 factories making leather goods, plus all the saddlery. The industry has declined over the years but the cream comes to the top!”
Adds Ettinger: “As a company we are growing, and people appreciate working in a factory like this. There is a great atmosphere; it is like a big family and many of our staff have been here all their working lives.”
Billingham was born around the corner from the Ettinger factory, and started there in 1979 as a 16-year-old apprentice.
“Over the years I have learned every aspect of the process,” says Billingham, whose mother worked in the same factory. “They taught me how to do pattern cutting, leather cutting, skiving, splitting, preparing and machining, and then over time the main thing was to learn product costing.”
Some leather goods can be made by machine, but at the top end of the market—where Ettinger sits—the attention to detail required in producing some of the world’s finest wallets, purses, luggage, card holders and watch rolls—among a broad product range—cannot be replicated by a machine.
“I have seen machines making wallets,” adds Ettinger, “where a machine folds the leather and it goes into a computer-controlled sewing machine, but the end product is not the same. It just doesn’t do it in the same way.
“It can take up to five years to train someone to make wallets to our quality. Between five and eight pairs of hands are involved in making every Ettinger wallet. We conduct quality control throughout the manufacturing process; it is a particular mindset. When we bought the factory we brought everything up to the Ettinger level, or what we call ‘the Japanese standard,’ which is perfection.”
The quality of Ettinger goods was noticed by King Charles III, who is a long-standing customer, and who issued Ettinger with its first Royal Warrant in 1996.
“You can be a chimney sweep or supply the king’s cornflakes,” explains Ettinger. “Anyone who supplies a product to the Royal Household for at least seven years can apply. It is not granted automatically; it can take a few years or it might not be granted at all. We received the Royal Warrant on January 1, 1996 and we have to re-apply every five years.
“The Royal Warrant is a seal of approval, trust and quality. The world over has a great respect for British royalty. People know that if King Charles is buying Ettinger then it must be good. Customers know their order will be delivered and that it is going to be of the quality they want.”
In an age of computerized mass-production sometimes the old ways remain the best, and Ettinger brings living proof that long-standing heritage in hand-crafted manufacturing is adaptable for the modern world.
“The Royal Warrant is a seal of approval, trust and quality. People know that if King Charles is buying Ettinger then it must be good”