Skip, what attracted you to working for your family’s business when you first joined Horween?
What attracted me was the sense of pride I had in what my predecessors had accomplished. It was an unparalleled opportunity for me to see if I could rise to the occasion and make my own mark on our company’s path. Time will tell I guess. I also got along great with my father and grandfather and thought it would be amazing to work with them.
The family aspect to Crockett & Jones is very important. It sets us apart from many of our competitors, giving us the freedom to follow our own path. What does it mean to the Horween family to remain family owned and to continue your family’s legacy?
Family owned businesses present unique challenges and opportunities all at once. We feel very strongly that there is a certain path that we were set on when my great grandfather founded our business and we do our best to follow that framework. As a family, we can take our time and develop business and relationships on a much more personal and permanent basis than a large public corporation. The idea of making it the best it can be, certainly does not mean you are going to become a massive business - and that’s always been OK with us.
Can you give us a snapshot of the ‘History of Horween’ – The Tannery and The Family?
Our Tannery was founded in 1905 as ‘Horween and Company’ by my great-grandfather. Shell Cordovan was his only product and used primarily for sharpening strops for razors/blades. In 1920, he took the opportunity to purchase ‘Hermann Loescher and Sons’ which also tanned cowhides, in our current location. My grandfather, Arnold and his brother Ralph, joined the company in the early 1920’s, working to develop and broaden our product lines. My uncle Ralph left the business to pursue a full-time legal career in 1951. And my father Arnold Horween Jr. joined the business in 1953. I joined the company full-time straight from university in 1978. And my son Nick joined in 2009, followed by my daughter Natalie in 2015. I’m not sure how my father and grandfather felt, but I already know, when the time comes… I will be leaving the company in good hands
Most of our customers will only ever handle finished Cordovan and will not understand the basic of a tanning process. Could you give us a quick overview of the tanning process that makes Horween so special (secrets aside!)? From Raw material to finished Shells…
Tanning Shell Cordovan is a little like making fine wine... It cannot be rushed. We receive hides, remove the hair and prepare the skins for vegetable tanning; using a tanning solution made as my great-grandfather did from the very beginning. We still use his formula and procedure. Which means that the tanning is still done in large vats taking 60 days while modern tanning is typically done in 1.
Then we hot stuff - or nourish the skins with another family recipe of raw oils waxes and greases. Additionally, we curry the leather- a painstaking hand oiling done one at a time by one man and his brush! The skins are piled together and aged an additional 90 days. At this point they are shaved, like planing wood to expose the super tight natural fibre structure that is the Shell.
Multiple stain coats are applied, and finally after drying naturally they are hand-waxed and polished on a glazing jack - a mechanical arm with a smooth piece of glass which polishes the surface – the sought-after Cordovan sheen. After grading it’s shipped to craftsmen like yourselves where the real magic happens… (Skip, we think this is equally as magical!)
Tanning Cordovan sounds a little like producing high quality English shoes… It takes time, you need highly skilled staff and you end up with a product of real beauty that will stand the test of time. Technically speaking, why is the tanning process for Horween Cordovan so long?
Traditional tanning, like traditional shoemaking isn’t complicated, it just isn’t easy (If you know what you are doing). We take the time to let the leather equalize and cure and age to its best natural state.
If you had to highlight one artisan process that makes you stop and wonder each time you see it, what would it be and can you tell us a little about it?
I guess the one process I constantly find amazing is shaving (To the layman – cutting the Shell from the skins/hides). It is very difficult and not exact. You can show an operator what a Shell should be but he has to learn the art of smoothing and exposing this unique fibre structure. The Shell is never at the same depth in different skins, and even at different depths in the same skin... I often wonder who discovered it, and admire the craftsmen that know how to do this extremely delicate and totally essential step.
A supplier is not always the easiest role to play in an artisanal product supply chain. How has business been during these rather ‘odd’ governmental times and has it helped that the Horween’s brand has become such an iconic ‘hallmark’ of American quality?
Odd times to say the least, although business has been good during these times. While we are not immune to the fortunes of the economy, it helps that we have a reputation for quality - worldwide. That reputation is useful in getting us into some doors, but it is the excellent products and reputation of our customers that carry the day in the way that they handle our products.
Working together for more than 30 years, Crockett & Jones and Horween have a well-established relationship. How important is it that your customers have longevity in mind?
We think that a long term mind-set is critical for both partners. We are at our best working with like-minded people and businesses - in it for the long-haul making products that are functionally and aesthetically pleasing. We like to think we are guided by the simple concept of making products our fathers would be proud of, and our sons will be pleased to make.
The only Cordovan that Crockett & Jones use is Horween, which we of course refer to as ‘Genuine Cordovan’. It is so important for us to only use the finest materials, as and where we are able to, so if a Crockett & Jones customer was to ask – Why do you only use Cordovan from Horween? What would your reply be?
We like to think Horween's Genuine Shell Cordovan is the best of its type. And most importantly consumers agree. We and our customers put so much work into it that in wear, it doesn’t just survive it thrives. A well cared for cordovan shoe will look great for a VERY long time.