Walsall: the land of lime and leather
The Midlands town of Walsall, where our factory is based, was the saddlery and leather goods capital of Britain in Victorian times and before. But why, you might ask, did this trade develop in Walsall? “The town is built on limestone rock and lime is one of the main ingredients used to cure leather,” explains Ettinger’s Factory Manager, and life-long Walsall-man, Gary Billingham. “Because of this, the tanneries and leather-based factories set up there initially,” he adds. This hard, sedimentary rock did wonders for the fortunes of this small Midlands town, as equine equipment was in huge demand at the time. “And if you go back to the 1800s, there was a huge demand for leather saddles and accessories,” explains Gary. “The nation had an enormous cavalry, which needed kitting out, and horses were very much the primary mode of transport back then,” he adds. So in the 19th century Walsall was booming, and all thanks to the nation’s trusty steeds.
Along came the motorcar…
Everything changed, however, with the arrival and proliferation of the motorcar at the beginning of the 20th century. Horses, and the accessories they required, were no longer needed for transportation; the leather industry in Walsall suddenly had to change profoundly. By 1934 the Ettinger factory had all but stopped crafting bridles, girths and other saddlery and had diversified production, with the focus now on small leather goods.
Photograph taken of the Ettinger Factory (then known as James Homer Ltd) in 1929
The discovery of the bridle hoard
Gerry Ettinger went to visit the factory and found storerooms piled high with beautiful high-quality bridle leather, which had not previously been used for small leather goods. It would have been a crime to let it go to waste and so Gerry set about creating the Bridle Hide Collection. “It’s not bridal, it’s bridle!” says current CEO, Robert Ettinger, “It’s the very thick cowhide that has been used to make saddles for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It’s hard wearing and strong and made using a lot of oils and waxes so it can stand all weathers.” Fantastic stuff, but in its original form, not appropriate for wallets. Gerry’s team took the original batch of leather and split it down to a more malleable thickness in order to make the first collection.
The Ettinger Factory old press room in 1960's
The origin of London Tan
And it wasn’t just the resilient bridle leather that needed using up; there was also a stock of softer, light tan panel leather looking for a new purpose. Robert Ettinger explains the origin of this trademark Ettinger colour: “the panel leather used on the inside of a saddle – the leather which sits alongside the horse’s back – is and always was crafted from a light, vegetable tanned, leather. It is made without any chemicals, so that when the horse gets hot no unpleasant chemicals seep onto the horses back. At this point we had the panel leather and the bridle hide in stock, and we needed to create a product,” Robert explains of his father’s work. “People trusted saddle leather and knew it well and the darker bridle leather contrasted beautifully with the striking light tan, so Gerry and his team set about making the first Bridle Hide Collection.” The first collections were produced using black bridle leather and the London tan as the inside colour. Over the years the Ettinger team has expanded the range to nine colours, from red and petrol blue through to nut and racing green, with the contrasting inside panel remaining the signature London tan.
The Bridle Hide Collection in 1949
The craftsmanship behind the collection
Ettinger’s man-on-the-ground in Walsall, Gary, is not only an expert on the history of the Walsall leather industry (having been born in a house a stone’s throw from the Ettinger factory), but he is also a supreme craftsman. During his forty years working for Ettinger, he has designed a whopping 1500 Ettinger products. “I think the Bridle Hide Collection made us change our perspective on how we make leather goods in Walsall, because it was totally different from anything that had been done before,” he explains. “And the quality of these products is phenomenal,” he adds. “We select and source the right material. It must be correctly treated and tanned. We want young, unmarked skins finished with exactly the right colours and finishes,” explains Gary. There are around 30 parts to each wallet and inspections are made at every stage of the process to ensure perfection.
Bridle Hide: a signature collection
So there you have it – from the lime pits of Walsall and the arrival of the motorcar comes our Bridle Hide Collection. The style, and of course the story, is utterly unique to Ettinger: “We were the first British brand making leather wallets with the contrasting panel inside. It’s become something of a signature,” explains Robert, proudly. And this continuing equine theme is particularly fitting for the Ettinger family, many of whom (including Gerry Ettinger, who rode in Hyde Park and kept his horses next to Buckingham Palace), have been keen horsemen and women. So let’s saddle up and see what’s next in store – here’s to the next 85 years!