Originally published in
August 2016
True style is about more than names and labels — it’s in the personal, artisanal touches that give each product its individuality
IN TODAY’S GLOBALLY MINDED WORLD, where fashion seasons are becoming meaningless, and social media has fuelled our thirst for knowledge and visual stimulation, the concept of luxury is being redefned. Discerning consumers are turning away from disposable style, and demanding to know about the provenance of what they’re buying. They understand that as the world’s resources dwindle and economies struggle, what gives a product real value is not a fashy logo, but an expression of the human touch. Because of this, the skills of traditional artisans must remain central to the 21st century’s biggest and most desirable brands. Here nine purveyors of luxury reveal the integral role craftsmen and -women play in the creation of their goods.
Technology is a wonderful thing, but it’s the handcrafted element that makes a product unique and gives it character


Bulgari’s fne jewellery is made in the brand’s birthplace of Rome, but its timepieces are crafted in Neuchatel, considered the heart of Swiss watchmaking. Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, design director at Bulgari’s watches design centre, oversees about 250 artisans, including three master watchmakers who are responsible for creating master complications, a skill that takes up to 20 years to learn.

“The design process is very complex, and can take four years, with the whole process done in-house,” Stigliani says. “Italian designers love to play with technical constraints, yet we grow up with the decorative architecture of ancient towns all around us, which generates a unique aesthetic. I’m, therefore, driven by the sensuality of functionality. A new Bulgari watch must have perfect geometry. Once my designs are strong enough, I work with the technical teams to fgure out a way to produce them.”

The highly decorative ranges, such as Serpenti and Lucea, owe much to Bulgari’s jewellery heritage, fusing pure shapes with precious stones. The Octo range, however, has no room for extraneous adornment. The brand’s pillar for men turns heads, thanks to its elaborate haute horlogerie.

The Octo Ultranero houses the world’s thinnest mechanical tourbillon movement, the Octo Finissimo Skeleton exposes the inner movement through glass, so that its hand-assembled elegance can be fully admired, and the new Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater is the most slender yet. The titanium case is just 6.85mm deep, and has a sapphire crystal case back, facetted hands with diamond- polished tips, and is water resistant up to 30m.

Inside are 362 components, including two hammers and a fat gong, delivering a clean, crisp resonance. The minute repeater movement has hand-fnished graining and chamfering, and the vulcanised black alligator leather strap is fastened with a triple-blade titanium-folding clasp.

“In this moment, our clients prefer luxury products that are timeless that can become heirlooms, so I aim to make objects that talk clearly to our clients about the brand. These are not trophies. These are watches to be worn every day,” Stigliani says.


At Rolex’s facilities in Switzerland, more than 2,000 highly skilled watchmakers are involved in manufacturing the hundreds of different components that go into every watch movement.

These elements are so small and complex that assembling and regulating them is carried out completely by hand. So when Rolex inscribes each of its watches with “Superlative Chronometer”, the company knows what it’s talking about.

For Rolex, the ability to lay claim to building mechanical movements with the upmost time precision has been central since day one. Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis founded their brand in London in 1905, received offcial chronometer certifcation in 1910, and moved operations to Geneva in 1919.

Rolex caused a stir in 1926 with the introduction of the Oyster, the world’s frst waterproof and dustproof wristwatch. The hermetically sealed case, screw-down bezel, and winding crown made the watch impervious to dust, perspiration, temperature, and shocks, thereby helping to popularise wrist watches over pocket equivalents.

Rolex later unveiled a self-winding mechanism called the perpetual rotor, which meant the case no longer had to be breached to wind it. Thanks to clever craftsmanship, a new half-moon shaped oscillating weight was able to rotate freely on an axle with the movement of the wearer, powering the mainspring. This went on to become standard in the watch world, and the Oyster has continued to innovate ever since.

Improvements include a twinlock winding crown to improve waterproofness, a parafex shock absorber to protect the balance wheel, and a cerachrom bezel insert made from corrosion and scratch-resistant ceramic. The numerals and graduations are molded in, and then coated in gold or platinum.

This year Rolex will celebrate 90 years of the Oyster, which comes in a wide range of styles for men and women, either classic with calendar functions, or professional versions built for specifc functions such as mountain climbing, diving, aviation, and yachting.


Burberry is a behemoth brand today, but its roots lie in British craftsmanship and, as such, its heritage trench coat collection is still handmade in Castleford, a small town in the north of England.

The story goes that the iconic coat was frst designed by Thomas Burberry in the 1880s to protect military offcers from the elements while in the trenches. Instead of using waxed or rubberised fabrics, he developed gabardine, a durable yet lightweight fabric made from yarn woven in a compact twill construction with more than 100 interlacing threads per centimetre. This causes water to be repelled, thereby offering a new approach to rainwear.

He went on to patent the trench in 1912, and Burberry continues to make its own gabardine to this day. Cotton yarns are doubled up in the weaving process, and the fabric undergoes multiple checks throughout its creation.

Design details that remain constant include epaulettes on shoulders, a storm shield across the upper back, D-ring belts, and a back pleat (originally to allow ease of movement on horseback). There are more than 80 processes involved in making a trench. The collar is hand sewn into place, using 180 stitches to ensure a fuid curve.

And to further distinguish this iconic style, each coat is lined with the brand’s distinctive check, which is positioned in such a way that it is symmetrical and unbroken. Pop that collar, and underneath the check lies at 45 degrees.


Everything Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana design revolves around their beloved Italy, and this season’s collection is no exception. Taking inspiration from a ’50s tourist’s eye of the country, and the kind of treats and crafts they might have picked up on their visit, a handmade appeal pervades every piece.

The Sicily bag is the epitome of this mood. The style, which debuted in 2010, has come to represent Dolce & Gabbana’s dedication to Italy’s artisanal heritage. Summer’s Sicily looks to “the timeless elegance of Italian women” for its linear shape, while traditional materials, including lace and macramé, add allure.

It takes fve hours to assemble the leather version, and 12 hours to create a hand-crochet version. Other touches include small jewel medallions, charms, and miniature purses. The Sicily also features prints from the season, including stripes, citrus fruit, and banana leaves.

Meanwhile, the Intaglio collection harks back to the embroidered linens once given as part of women’s dowries. Nappa leather is laser-perforated and then hand- embroidered, the upper side of the leather pressed to create a pierced effect. Bellissimo.


“Technology is a wonderful thing, but it’s the handcrafted element that makes a product unique and gives it character — that’s something that simply cannot be taught to a machine.” So says Zaim Kamal, Montblanc’s creative director. For him, it’s important that each of its categories — writing instruments, timepieces, jewellery, and leather goods — is made in a centre for excellence for that skill. For the latter, that meant establishing the Montblanc Pelletteria in Scandicci, on the outskirts of Florence, in 2006.

“The city has long been regarded as the capital of leather craftsmanship, and our pelletteria includes exceptional artisans, who are passionate about crafting the fnest leather products. Many of them come from families who have worked with leather for generations. This gives Florence its rich and unique expression in leather. They understand and apply their technical knowledge of leather, potential treatments, and functions, in addition to their deep appreciation for the aesthetic appeal of leather,” Kamal says.

The process of making one piece involves many iterations. “Designs are frst hand-sketched to understand the volumes and the proportions of the individual piece. Then it is discussed with the pattern-cutters and the material team to ensure that the transition from paper to prototype is as smooth as possible — these teams work very closely together, often challenging each other to fnd new solutions,” Kamal says.

“Once a piece receives the go-ahead for production, the artisans source the best skins from the tanneries near Santa Croce, with only blemish-free samples passing inspection. Pattern cutters judge the optimum way for skins to be cut, and a piece starts to take shape. Every stage of production is conducted by hand.”

The new Urban Spirit collection comprises 22 smart storage pieces for the consummate gentleman, ranging from duffe bags and backpacks, to wallets and business card holders. Many items are multifunctional, and they’re all lent a certain sexiness by the black matt, slightly waxy fnish. The needs of modern travel are also catered for, with limited edition storm covers featuring big city subway maps and special linings on internal pockets that block unauthorised readings of personal data of chips embedded in credit cards and passports.

It’s these kinds of innovations that keep Montblanc products forward-facing. And even the artisans accept a little helping hand from technology along the way. Back in the pelletteria, there’s a one-armed robot whose sole job it is to endurance test shoulder straps.


Louis Vuitton opened his frst trunk shop in 1854 and his original designs are now archived at the brand’s headquarters in Asnières-sur-Seine, just north of Paris. The former family home also houses a gallery and a workshop, where ffth-generation grandson Patrick Louis Vuitton personally oversees the 200 or so artisans who fulfl bespoke orders.

The founder’s early methods are still employed, including using fexible poplar wood for frames, waterproof monochrome canvas for the sides, sewn cotton panels for hinges (never nails), and small rivets for eternal assemblage. What has changed are the items they’re asked to box. These days requests are more likely to be for a laptop case than a shipping trunk.

With this rich history and resource at her disposal, it’s little wonder Sofa Coppola has visited the workshop to develop her namesake bag. “From the beginning, I had a personal set of requirements,” the flm director says. “For example, I wanted it to be entirely in leather, discreet and, above all, practical. I had in mind a very French elegance. I grew up surrounded by my father’s friends, and I will never forget the frst time I met the French actress Aurore Clément. She wore a crisp man’s shirt and was the embodiment of pure, simple chic. I wanted a handbag that conveyed the same spirit.”

Since its launch in 2009, the bag has remained a bestseller, with new interpretations continuing to refne the understated design. This season it comes in neutral shades and perforated leather. “I always carry my navy blue one, but I wanted to create a more light-hearted, fun version for the summer. So I went back to the atelier and visited the extraordinary artisans there: they have such a unique savoir-faire; a magic touch that brings dreams to life,” Coppola says.

This classic bag is composed of veau soie (silk-touch calf leather). The skin is hand selected, tanned, and stretched before creating the bag begins, which includes 300 operations from the frst cut to the fnished item. A vital stage is hand-painting the edges of the bag to ensure a fawless surface. “Designing a handbag is not unlike making a flm,” Coppola says. “They both require the same curiosity and sensitive approach.”


Hästens is Sweden’s oldest — and royally appointed — bed manufacturer. The family-run business has seen six generations of craftsmen stay true to its founder’s methods and natural materials, despite the company’s global reach.

Pehr Adolf Janson started off in 1852 making saddles, harnesses, and mattresses, but by 1917 he focused entirely on beds, which were made predominantly from horsetail hair. Today horsehair remains the essential ingredient. It is washed in boiling water, rinsed, spun, disinfected, and heated up to 140°C. This crinkly, voluminous material has unbeatable ventilation properties.

“Behind every Hästens bed are hundreds of man hours of research, development, and design considerations. A true case of design thinking in every aspect of its construction, with every element involving numerous individual tasks that add up to the whole Hästens experience of perfect sleep,” says master craftsman Jan-Erik Leander. “Sleep lies in the details. In the engineering of the bed. In the devotion of the craftsman’s work and handling of the all-natural materials. The selection of slow- growing pine from Sweden’s north. Softest cotton distributed by hand. Breathable, temperature-regulating wool. And horsetail hair, which is naturally springy.”

The factory in the small city of Köping was designed by architect Ralph Erskine, and is an inspiring building, within which Hästens makes its distinctive, blue-checked beds. It takes a dedicated team of artisans 320 hours to make Hästens’s most exclusive style, the Vividus, which Leander recently helped to present at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano.

“Sweden’s legacy of design and handcrafting is long, illustrious, and fascinating; rooted in what it is to be Swedish, how we think, act, and live,” Leander says. “Hästens is very much a part of this legacy, boasting many landmark developments of our own by constantly trying to challenge ourselves to do better.”


Caran d’Ache once entered the Guinness Book of Records for making the most expensive pen in the world. La Modernista Diamonds sold for $265,000 in 1999, thanks to the 5,072 diamonds and 96 rubies encrusted on it. The Swiss company’s current range of writing instruments, while modest by comparison, remains exquisitely crafted.

There are 20 steps in making a classic fountain pen, and many more in one of the more complicated editions, such as the Caelograph, which is inspired by celestial objects. “It took several years to develop with a specialist astronomer who realised the sky on the round pen body,” says Caran d’Ache’s communications director Günter Hilweg. The result maps 51 constellations and 353 stars on the midnight blue, Chinese lacquered surface, while a two- ring moving mechanism allows you to chart their position in the skies on any given date and time. A rotating semitransparent sleeve indicates the horizon time, the compass points, and the zenith.

“Chinese lacquering requires specifc and exclusive knowledge. The technique has many constraints … such as dust and temperature, and that can only be controlled by people,” Hilweg says of the importance of the artisans’ work.

First the resin is fltered and purifed, then colour is added. The lacquer is applied in several thin layers, then dried and polished. Silver particles are added to the top layer to represent the stardust of the Milky Way. The cap features hour lines typical of sundials. The compass rose is mounted on the tip, and another engraved on the 18-carat gold nib. The clip resembles a compass needle, and diamonds hint at constellations.Essentially it’s a super fancy, pocket-sized orrery. Oh, and you can write with it too.

Caran d’Ache has been making fne drawing and writing instruments in Geneva since 1915, frst pencils and pastels, and later ball pens and fountain pens. The company employs about 150 people across two workshops.

“Our company has a human size; people are pretty proud of contributing to its evolution. There are almost 90 types of know-how between them, which are transmitted from one generation to another. We consider Caran d’Ache to be a family,” Hilweg says. “We have classical processes, but we also work with schools and designers to develop new products. Many processes are made by hand to obtain the best result, and these skills are often learnt in-house. We want to surprise our customers with innovative products that give them pleasure to create, draw, and write every day.”


Cutler and Gross combines British design with Italian expertise. It was established in 1969 by opticians Graham Cutler and Tony Gross, who opened their frst store in London’s Knightsbridge in 1971. Frame maker George Smith handmade each pair of glasses, and his wife dyed the lenses. They branched into ready-to-wear in the ’80s and moved their production to Cadore in the Dolomite Mountains. All the materials, including acetate, lenses, rivets, and tools, are sourced locally.

“We have never compromised on the way in which our glasses are made, so that each pair is the sum of many careful processes and considered craftsmanship,” says Marie Wilkinson. She joined Cutler and Gross as a trainee optician back in 1982, and is now design director. “The artisans in our factory have a large skill set, and we use the latest computers and design technology to assist them whenever we can.”

Each pair of glasses takes four to six weeks to produce. They undergo 42 tailored steps, including design, cutting, barrelling, bending, hinge insertion, polishing, and quality control, and pass through 35 pairs of hands in the process.

“Our roots have always been in pure acetate designs, but with new capabilities in metal production, it has been exciting to see the results of merging metal with acetate, which is seen in the Caesar model from the Shakespeare collection launching in Paris this September, ” Wilkinson says.

She has also moved the brand into gold, ruthenium, and palladium frames, with the Precious Metals collection, while the Heirloom collection features iconic styles from its archives worn by the likes of Bono, Iggy Pop, Grace Jones, and Madonna. Customers can also return their favourite frames to be repolished and relensed, and any one of their 2,000 or so designs can be made bespoke.