In the last few years, Horween has become a common name used in the world of watches. Sometimes mistaken as just a type of leather, Horween is in fact a tannery that is over 100 years old. Though popular in footwear, luggage, sporting goods, etc for sometime, only recently have they become a common choice for watch strap brands. A choice made given the desirability of their leather, the selection they offer and the sheer sumptuous quality of the product. It’s pretty rare for a manufacturer of a material to gain such recognizability that brands call out its use. Other than movements, it’s not often in watches that a brand lists a supplier as a feature.
High Craft Vintage Straps all feature Horween top leathers
It therefore should come as no surprise that in the Windup Watch Shop, many, if not most of the straps available feature Horween leather in their construction. So, we thought it would be a worthwhile venture to take a deeper look into the Chicago based tannery and tell you a bit about their history, as well as one of their most famous leathers.
This article is excerpted from Horween Leather: A Watch Nerd’s Primer, by Ilya Ryvin which was originally published on Worn & Wound, September 27th, 2013.
Horween: An American Institution
Isadore Horween, a Ukrainian immigrant, founded Horween Leather Company in 1905 on Division Street in Chicago. Though the Horween of today sports an impressive portfolio, the company first focused on making razor strops for sharpening blades. As the times and tastes changed, the company expanded into other areas, producing everything from football leather for the NFL to water-resistant footwear for the U.S. Marine Corps. While most tanneries eventually moved overseas to take advantage of lower labor costs, Horween stayed put (only moving once in 1920 to Chicago’s north side).
Today, Horween is still family operated under the tutelage of a 4th generation Horween, Skip, and his son, Nick. They employ approximately 160 unionized workers, many of whom have been with the company for decades and have honed their skills to nearly irreplaceable precision. Most savvy consumers know Horween for their shell cordovan and Chromexcel leathers, used by countless brands in their wares. So what makes these two leathers so special?
Chromexcel is a type of leather specific to Horween, made from a formula developed by the company in 1911 that to this day remains largely unchanged. In order to appreciate Chromexcel, it’s important to first understand the two different methods of tanning leather: chrome tanning and vegetable tanning.
Chrome tanning, also known as mineral tanning, is a relatively modern process, although the majority of the world’s leather today is chrome tanned. The method is arguably simple, and involves hides soaked and tumbled in drums containing a solution of chromium sulfates, acids, and salts that stabilize the leather. The benefit of chrome tanning, and why it’s the preferred choice for many manufacturers, is that it’s quick; the entire process usually takes one day. The resulting leather is also soft from the get-go, more consistent in and receptive to color, and has excellent water resistance. The downside, however, is that chrome tanned leather often smells of chemicals and can look somewhat synthetic, and ultimately doesn’t wear too well.
Vegetable tanning is the much older brother of the two methods. It’s a natural process, using tannins extracted from a number of different tree barks, including pine, birch, mimosa, mangrove, etc. It is also far more artisanal than chrome tanning, and can take up to 60 days to do properly. The resulting hide boasts deep, rich tones and has a capacity to develop a beautiful patina over time. If you own a leather item that looks better now than when you first bought it, it’s likely vegetable tanned. The only major downside to vegetable tanned leather is that it is more susceptible to water and heat.
Chromexcel leather gets the best of both worlds, combining both chrome and vegetable tanning to create something beautiful and unique. The hide is first chrome tanned, then vegetable tanned using Horween’s proprietary recipe. It is then hot stuffed with waxes and greases, resulting in leather brimming with oils (this type of leather is also known as pull-up leather because the oils migrate when the leather is folded or pulled). It is then finished with hand swabbed aniline dyes that don’t mask the leather’s surface and retain the skin’s natural grain structure. The result is a hide that is both beautiful and durable, and it’s no surprise that is a great choice for watchstraps because the leather is pliable, water-resistant, and develops a patina quickly.