Today was our first full day in Florence. This morning we walked to the Leather School, the Scuola del Cuoio. This was one of my favorite sites we have visited. The school was founded after World War Two in 1950, and originally around 80 young boys (most of whom were orphans) arrived. They were then taught the intricate process of turning leather into beautiful products by hand. Unfortunately, today there are not many artisans left. It has been difficult for the leather school to attract young Italians who want to learn the art.
Of the ones left, today we got to meet Francesco who seems to be the face of the company. Francesco’s job is to take extremely thin and delicate 24 karat “gold leaf” material to make imprints on the leather. He uses a special brush made of horse hair to apply the gold, and has a series of tools to make whatever design he wants. It is a very difficult and intricate process, and Francesco is the only one qualified to do the job. Because the items at the Scuola del Cuoio are not mass produced, he has the freedom to create whatever he wants. This special technique started in the Middle Ages with the monks, and this company stays true to its original form. It is obvious that the company has good relations with its customers because you can get initials engraved on your leather purchase for free. I took advantage of that for everyone in my family! Additionally, one customer even brought our guide a small gift during our tour as a thank you.
The Scuola del Cuoio plays an important role in the supply chain. They are the manufacturers of their own products, but they purchase their raw materials from places in Italy and out of the country. The gold that Francesco used is from a place in Florence that produces many different types of gold (including edible gold). It is of the best quality. One of the materials needed for bags is a product called Salpa. This fabric comes from real leather and is used in different parts of the product to protect it and preserve it from humidity. These fabrics come from local suppliers in Florence as well.
Animal skins, on the other hand, come from mostly outside of the country. We got to see and touch several different types of animal leather which was one of my favorite parts. The Leather School imports goat leather from Greece and Italy, lamb from South Africa and New Zealand, deer from Virginia in the United States, ostrich from South Africa, python from Indonesia and Malaysia, and alligator from Mississippi. It was amazing to see how this company got their materials from all over the world. They are truly looking for the best quality, and that requires the best suppliers. I also learned that a tannery is the place where the animal skins are processed. All the tanneries used to be in Florence but are now located in an area between Florence and Pisa. The school used to do this step on their own, but the skins were often too dirty and smelly to deal with. The tanneries that they now utilize are another channel in the overall supply chain. The leather that the school buys now is clean and ready to use.
From this leather, the primary products that they hand make are bags, purses, jackets, belts and other small leather items. Each bag is different and can be specialized according to the customer’s demands. They do not sell to retailers, so their customers are individuals who shop there. They have an extreme variety of customers, and some come to Scuola del Cuoio because they know they will be insured the absolute best quality. Stars from the United States such as Matthew McConaughey and Robert Downey Jr. have visited the school and purchased their products. They even have princesses from Arabian countries who make special requests for exotic animal bags. They sell their products online, and also have a store in New York City to make the leather more readily available for Americans. It is interesting to see all the steps in the supply chain of the Scuola del Cuoio before finally reaching the many eager end consumers.