Leather is made by tanning the hide of an animal, normally a cow, which produces a hard wearing but flexible material to work with. Traditionally, the hide was tanned slowly and meticulously using natural tannins extracted from chestnut tree bark, leaves, roots and other plant extracts. More recently, in our busy, modern, consumer society, this tanning process is now more commonly done by using chemicals as this is a much faster and easier process.
Chemical tanning is quick, often only 24 hours, allowing more items to be produced in a shorter time and consequently sold at lower prices, in other words, mass production. The leather produced from chemical tanning is certainly cheaper to buy but is often made with little skill and appears almost synthetic. It is also not very hard wearing and will often smell of chemicals. The worst thing about chemical tanning is that it is extremely bad for the environment as the waste materials contain hazardous compounds.
Vegetable tanning is an ancient tradition passed down from generation to generation and involves a more skilled and much slower process, often as long as 60 days to produce one piece of leather. For this reason it is a process only used now by true artisans, who are few and far between. Tuscany has an ancient Vegetable Tanning Consortium, one of the last of its kind, and is consequently known as the leather capital of the world.
Vegetable tanned leather is a high end luxury item and is used for designer handbags, shoes and other accessories. The cost is much higher and among these luxury leather goods, anything made from Italian leather is considered to be the best and usually has a high price tag attached to it. This leaves many people asking if it is really worth all that extra money and the answer is clearly and emphatically 'yes' for many reasons.
Tuscan leather, arguably the best of all Italian leather, is made from cow and calf hide, not killed for their skin but as a by-product of the meat industry. The skin is then diligently cleaned, stretched and soaked in huge wooden barrels of natural tannin, often for as long as two months. The ancient traditions are painstakingly adhered to and a high level of skill and patience is needed over the long process. All natural substances are used and many of these are recovered and recycled for use in other industries such as farming and building. This makes vegetable tanning a completely natural and eco-friendly industry.
The resulting leather is beautiful, soft, natural and pleasant to touch and smell. The colour is rich and warm but paler than chemical dyed leather enabling it to be easily and naturally dyed to other shades, even pastel colours. No two pieces of leather are ever the same and, due to the fact that the leather is handmade, there are small irregularities which immediately set it apart from the chemical tanned leather.
The real beauty of vegetable tanned leather is that it is highly durable and will age naturally, looking even more beautiful with time. Due to the fact that the items made from the leather are nearly always hand crafted too, you can guarantee that you will have a unique, one of a kind leather item. Added to this, the way you live your life and use your leather goods will also affect how they age. If you have a handbag you use almost every day and another you keep locked away for special occasions, the leather on each will age very differently, truly reflecting the lifestyle they lead with you.
We think this explanation qualifies the statement that vegetable tanned leather, particularly made in Tuscany, Italy, and is well worth the extra money. You will end up with something that will last a lifetime, is unique to you and is uncommonly beautiful.
They say that it is impossible to truly appreciate the beauty of vegetable tanned leather until you hold it in your hand.