The rebirth of an imperial leather

Its name is an invitation to dream and travel. Lost for many years, the secret of its unique tanning has now been rediscovered: Russian leather is being reborn in the new leather collection under the name Volynka.
Hermès Cuir de Russie

Photographer: Jeff Boudreau

The origins of Russian leather

In 1920s Paris it was the fashionable scent. Fleeing a world they no longer recognized as their own, White Russians cherished it as a vestige of their grandeur. They put its name to a variety of fragrances, virile to varying degrees. Russian leather was all the rage with perfumers. It seduced women, yet the scent’s origin was the warlike hide for soldiers’ boots. According to the legend, yufte – another of its names – was born when a Cossack rubbed his boots with birch bark to make them waterproof. This quality, plus its strength, made its reputation. Russian leather was the ageless material for binding books and lining the interiors of carriages. Solid but soft to the touch, it played to the senses. These talismans, remarks Sophie Mouquin, “exude a mixture of lapsang souchong, cigar and peat-rich whisky, the unique odour that is its signature.” There is no doubt, however, that in the eighteenth century it was one of the prized commodities in Imperial Russia’s trade with the West, which remained the prime destination for the best skins tanned in the Moscow region until early in the 1900s. Then its secrets were drowned out in the tumult of the October Revolution.

 

The imperial leather sheds its skin

 
 
  • When Russian leather came back to life it was on the other side of the English Channel, in the early 1970s. Divers off the Cornish coast brought up the precious cargo of a two-master that had sunk when it hit a storm off the Plymouth Sound in 1786. The Metta Catharina had set sail from Saint Petersburg for Genoa, but the hemp and Russian leather in its hold never reached their destination. For two centuries the sea had kept the handsome rolls of leather wrapped in its protective silt. Their discovery by divers in such fine condition confirmed that this unique material is indeed rotproof.
  • Photographer: Jeff Boudreau

  • Photographer: Jeff Boudreau

  • Twenty years later, in the 1990s, Hermès acquired a dozen of these legendary skins. They were used to make Sac à dépêches and Kelly bags, which can be admired at the Conservatoire des créations Hermès in Pantin. But that was only the start. In 2011 a working group was set up. Its mission was to exhume the secrets of this leather with its lozenge-shaped grain which was traditionally dyed red and then hardened and steeped in a strong-smelling oil. The work of investigation itself lasted six years, with the collaboration of dogged and 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, 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 ageing 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.
Volynka leather is now offered on three bags (Bolide voyage, Haut à courroies, Plume voyage) and a Ulysse notebook cover. Talismans with an aroma that is both smoky and woody; powerful and incomparable.