The Russian Leather By J & FJ Baker
Russian Leather is a piece of history very unique and distinct that was almost lost to history. Most notable about the leather was the cross hatch and birch oil aroma that emanated from the leather. Birch oil is one of the essential recipes to the Russian Leather’s success as it made the leather durable, strong, water resistant and insect repellent. The leather known as "Leather of Russia” (Cuir de Russie) was highly regarded and popular within high society in the 17th to early 20th century. As hard as European tanners tried, they could not match The Russian Leather.
Image: The reproduction of The Russian Leather
During the 17th until the 20th century, Russia would be the tanning ground for this unique leather. Artisan tanners using the closely guarded recipe would tan calf, reindeer and sometimes horse, sheep and goat hide. The tanning recipe contained mixed tree barks one being willow bark. The hides were tanned over a long period of time to preserve the natural fibres in the skins. This would create superior strength and wear resistance. After the tanning process the leather was treated with birch tar oil and other natural oils and greases. Strengthening the leather against water and insects and giving the leather the beautiful birch oil aroma. The distinct cross-hatched lines on the skin was said to created by a wooden roller that would have been done when the skin was still quite damp. Some say this might have been done to further get the birch oil into the skin.
One of Imperial Russia’s prized commodity was effective trading amongst the West. With Russia’s leather used by luxury furniture makers, book binders and boot makers. Popular in Paris and America and documented in Wills and Estates, proving its value. The history would end with the chaos and destruction of the communist Russian Revolution. The secret recipe and the art of the leather's tanning was lost.
That was until in 1973 with the discovery of the shipwreck The Metta Catharina. The ship set sail in 1786 from Saint Petersburg to Genoa. The ship hit a storm and sought shelter off the Plymouth Sound, Devon. With the crew able to reach shore, the ship broke free from its anchor and washed towards Raveness Point before sinking. The cargo of The Metta Catharina mainly hemp and Russian Leather, with a few items of glass and fine china. The divers confirmed that the hemp had all been destroyed with time. The leather however, remained in large quantities in neatly tied bundles. The outer pieces of the rolls of the leather were badly damaged but the inner hides were preserved. The discovery of this vintage in such fine condition is a testimony to The Russian Leathers resistance to rot and water damage. The ownership of the cargo belonged to Prince Charles, as the seabed was located in the territory of the Duchy of Cornwall. He however, decided to waive his rights so some of the leather could be commercially sold in order to pay for further searches. The Russian Leather found and recovered still had a problem of not being able to be reproduced. With no more Russian Leather produced in Russia and the amounts sold from The Metta Catharina.The Russian Leather was a limited leather with a expiration date
Image: Russian Leather neatly tied at the bottom of the sea floor
Image: Dive team recovery of The Russian Leather from The Metta Catharina
Image: Bag made with The Russian Leather from 1786
The Russian Leather from The Metta Catharina found itself at the doors of J & FJ Baker a small and prestigious tannery in England. Expert in historic oak bark tanning the tannery would study with the help of experts The original Russian Leather. Researching what is known about the tanning techniques and the naturally occurring materials that the Russian tanners would have had available. With prototypes made and sold to the public, the tannery would take 6 years of many trials and variations to be confident to have perfected the art to reproduce The Russian Leather.
"We researched what is known about the tanning techniques and the naturally occurring materials that the original Russian artisans would have had available." - J & FJ Baker
Using premium calfskins sourced locally in Devon, the hides are soaked in pits of lime, de-haired by hand and soaked in pits of three different barks: oak, willow and birch. Other production methods do not preserve the skins natural fibres which loses some of the tensile strength. They’re Russian Leather maintains the strength and hardwearing characteristics that made the Russian leather so sought after and valued throughout the world.
"We have patiently experimented with different quantities of these barks, to rediscover the ancient recipe that yields a leather that smells and handles as well as the original Russian Leather." - J & FJ Baker
Image: Joseph M. Leather Russian Calf Leather Wallet