Why Spruce Trees Are the Secret to Sweden’s Ultra Luxurious Leather

Tanned with spruce bark, these leather goods are some of the finest in the world.

From Issue Three of the Gear Patrol Magazine.
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“You’re not paying for the briefcase,” Jan Sandlund said, holding his father’s briefcase in the retail section of his leather shop in northern Sweden. “You’re paying for the history. You pay for the history and the briefcase comes free.” Sandlund is a third-generation leather craftsman at Böle Tannery, one of only three spruce-bark leather tanneries left in the world, and the only one that produces consumer goods.

The shop, located on the Pite River, just upstream from the small city of Piteå, has occupied the same building since 1918. It’s a barn-like structure, built by hand in the post-and-beam style. On the first level sit 14 vats, each dug roughly four feet into the ground beneath the floorboards. The vats are filled with water from the Pite River, which originates in lakes fed by the snowmelt from Norrland’s mountains. Added to the water are varying amounts of harvested spruce bark. “You have to take the bark in the springtime when the sap goes up in the trunk, because then it contains more sugar,” Sandlund noted. Over time, the sugar ferments into acid, which lowers the pH levels and aids in the tanning process. Sandlund recounted how when he was a boy, his father and grandfather harvested the spruce bark by hand.

Sandlund is a third-generation leather craftsman at Böle Tannery, one of only three spruce-bark leather tanneries left in the world.

Machines now assist with the labor-intensive harvest, but the process of tanning the hides remains completely man-powered. Workers move the hides from vat to vat as they gain color, and the spruce-bark solution is stronger in each subsequent vat. By the time the hides are ready to be stretched and dried, they’ve soaked in the solution for around twelve months. The results are worth the wait. The hides, once fully tanned, are a rich caramel color — a beautiful, natural hue. Böle does not use chromium or add artificial dyes. It’s possible to pull a hide straight out of the vat and bite into it with no ill effects, which Sandlund is keen to demonstrate.

Once the hides dry, workers move them to an upstairs loft where master saddle maker Billy Larsson takes custody. Larsson, a self-taught saddle maker, one of the finest in the world, started working at the tannery more than 30 years ago. He stitches each piece into place by hand, slowly constructing his made-to-order masterpieces. His workspace is meticulously organized, with all tools — punches, awls, hammers, knives and needles — strategically placed.

Larsson and Sandlund’s methodology and organization lead to impressive results, which are best embodied by the Single Minister Briefcase. The Single Minister features Böle’s tanned leather, Italian brass locks, a birchwood bottom rail and a Nordic reindeer skin lining. It’s also hand stamped and numbered, each case a descendant of the prototype that Sandlund’s father carried. The case comes with a 15- year warranty and a promise that should anything happen during that time, Böle will repair or replace it. Along with the warranty, a yearly maintenance service is also included.

However, as Sandlund first clarified, customers aren’t purchasing a briefcase, they are purchasing history: the history of a small family business in a small village in the north of Sweden, and of methods handed down through generations of leather craftsmen who haven’t altered their production traditions since the late 1800s. This case comes from people who believed that the way they did things was the correct way, even when the industry shifted toward making leather goods cheaply and quickly. Böle’s leather goods showcase that when initial investment is high, reward is even higher. And while speed and efficiency may increase output, they can never replicate the beauty of things made the old-fashioned way.

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A version of this story appears in Issue Three of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 320 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from five distinct locations around the world. Subscribe Now: $39

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