250-year-old leather from a shipwreck
Shipwrecks, long-forgotten secrets, and aristocrats always make for the basis of a compelling story, and, believe it or not, it’s an intriguing tale like this that’s behind this incredible bag.
This leather makes a statement, whether you know about its history or not. Not only for its unique color and texture, but its fragrance is also distinctive. Its signature scent is peat, cigars, spice, and smoke. It’s also well known for being waterproof.
This cross-hatch-grained leather, now known as Volynka, has a compelling story behind it. It was prized by aristocrats and elites for being completely waterproof and insanely strong and hardwearing, making it ideal for everything from tzar’s carriages and travel trunks to soldiers’ boots. It became a fashionable status piece for socialites in Europe and the US to import, until the methods for making it was lost with the advent of the Russian Revolution.
The leather was all but forgotten until 1973, when the wreckage of a Danish ship, Metta Catharina was discovered off the coast of Devonshire, in the UK. It had set sail from Saint Petersburg in Russia for Genoa in Italy in 1786, carrying 106 tonnes of china, glass, hemp, and Volynka leather before being hit by a storm and sank. Remarkably, despite two centuries under the sea, the rolls of leather were perfectly preserved, thus cementing their reputation for being waterproof and durable. These rolls are the last known samples of this Russian leather in existence.
Calling this leather waterproof is an understatement, surviving over 200 years under the sea is the ultimate proof of durability. The rolls that were recovered from the shipwreck have been sold to multiple craftsmen and companies, to this date you can still get accessories and leather goods made from the original leather that was recovered from this shipwreck, some come with a certificate of authenticity.
In Spring-Summer 2018, Hermès unveiled three Limited Edition bags, a Kelly, Plume, and HAC in Terre, all crafted from this rare and storied leather.
The origin of Russian leather
During the 17th and 18th centuries, this Russian leather became one of the major exports of the country. In German-speaking countries, this Russian leather was also known by the name Juften or Juchten. From the legend, this yufte leather (another name for the Russian leather), was born when a Cossack rubbed his boots with birch bark to make them waterproof.
There isn’t much documentation on the precise origin of the technique to make this unique leather, but we know for sure that its quality and durability were one of a kind, while also being soft to the touch, something that was not common on any kind of leather that was made to last. This made the leather incredibly popular as a luxury commodity.
The Russian leather was used on boots, bookbinding, lining the interior of carriages, and more.
The original process to make the Russian later was lost during the Russian revolution
The comeback to life
After more than two centuries at the bottom of the sea, divers brought up the precious cargo in the early 1970s, later on, in 1990 Hermès acquired a dozen of these legendary leathers. The original Russian leathers were used to make Sac à dépêches and Kelly bags, which can be admired at the Conservatoire des créations Hermès in Pantin.
Later in 2011, a working group was tasked with the goal to recover the secret technique to make the legendary Russian leather. The research alone lasted six years, with the collaboration of perfectionist artisans. In a bucolic little town in England, they have been honing the same techniques since Roman times: oak bark is gathered by the barrowful and ground, and skins are plucked by hand, one by one, on ancient stands. These arrive unprocessed, thick with salt. First, they are given a facelift in a bath of lime and freshwater. Before they can be dried, split, stuffed (steeped in oils) and nished, the skins then spend five months in a vat, soaking in a secret tree-bark solution – a mixture of vegetable tannins. “The secret of good tanning is a bit like making a good cup of tea”. Tanning is all about letting time do its work. Like aging a fine wine. Indeed, “tanners often follow their nose” when judging. With the help of all these professionals, it was finally possible to elucidate the secrets of making Russian leather – like that mysterious oil derived from birch and other plants, which strengthens and hardens the surface.
To this date,, Volynka leather is now offered on three bags (Bolide Voyage, Haut à courroies, Plume voyage) and a Ulysse notebook cover. All with an aroma that is both smoky and woody.