Delvaux: Commitment to Quality From Belgium

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

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.

Painstaking Process

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.

Apprenticeship is so exacting that it lasts for years. An apprentice usually assists for at least three years before being allowed to make a wallet alone, and for 10 years before being allowed to make a handbag. Still, those who are interested in leather crafting think the hard work and waiting are worthwhile. About 80 artisans are proud to be employed in the workshop. Their efforts are complemented by about 30 people on the administrative staff.

Costs Are High

As you might expect, leather goods from the Delvaux workshop are expensive. But when you consider the amount of labor involved and the fact that any item less than perfect will not pass the workshop's quality inspection test, prices seem less lofty. Handbags in calf cost between $190 and $600, with exotic leather bags costing up to $3,000. Wallets cost from $35 to $150. Attache cases are about $400 to $650. Luggage items range between $300 and $800 apiece.

There are also beautiful leather belts with handsome buckles for men and women that cost from $60 to $100. Other items include agendas, key cases, desk accessories, leather notebooks and folders.

Delvaux will take special orders for everything from handbags to backgammon cases, from golf bags to steamer trunks.

Delvaux has three boutiques in Brussels. They are at 24a Avenue de la Toison d'Or, 22 Boulevard Adolphe Max, and 31 Galerie de la Reine. These boutiques are open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Four more Delvaux boutiques are in Waterloo, Antwerp, Mechelen and Kortrijk. In addition, Delvaux bags are sold at several top boutiques throughout Belgium, but the selection is always greatest in Delvaux's own shops.

Only one Delvaux branch is outside of Belgium. It is in Tokyo, at the Shinjuku branch of the Isetan department store. Delvaux bags may not be bought by mail order.

Repair and Restoration

Delvaux stands by its product. The company's repair and restoration service assures customers of years worth of use and satisfaction. The workshop receives Delvaux handbags that were made 30 or 40 years old for repair and restoration.

These ancient bags are treated with as much care and respect as newer models and are returned to their owners ready to be used for additional decades.

Both new and restored bags get a written guarantee of authenticity, and instructions for proper care that includes use of Delvaux's protective polishing cream.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.

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