DECEMBER 2014 – The ethos of the artisan runs through many of the finer things in life – from luxury cars to world-class South African brandies.
Crafting the finest luxury products in the world is a delicate dance of art and science.
In the world of brandy, where the mantelpieces at top South African distilleries glitter with international awards received over the past years, it’s about the cold, hard figures of temperature and alcohol waltzing with the delicate nuances of flavour and fragrance. It takes a deft distiller’s hand to know just the right moment to separate the ‘heart’ that will go into barrel from the volatile and astringent ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ of the distillation.
For watchmakers at Breguet there’s the intricacy of each and every mechanism, coupled with the delicate curve of the watch hands, the luxuriant feel of the hand-stitched leather strap. At family owned luxury brands from Steinway to Riedel, it’s about building on what the previous generation has created, both honouring the past and creating the future.
Acclaimed engineer Sir Henry Royce had a simple philosophy: “Take the best that exists and make it better and when it doesn’t exist, design it”. That simple principle has defined each and every iconic motor car that has emerged from the Rolls-Royce production line over the past 110 years. And while the marque continues to produce new editions and innovations, the skilful craftsmanship that has long been a hallmark of its brand continues unchanged.
“Every one of our cars is hand built to order and we are reintroducing craft skills that, in many cases, would otherwise have lain dormant or been lost completely,” explains Andrew Monachan, General Manager Leathershop for Rolls-Royce. Indeed, with an eye on the future, the company’s Apprenticeship Programme provides four-year learnerships for young people to train in the rare skills required to produce a Rolls-Royce.
Each Phantom takes two months to build, with thousands of painstaking tasks completed by hand. It takes over two weeks and 450 individual pieces of leather to produce a full set for a single vehicle. Similarly, the woodwork is a work of art in itself, the perfect marriage of form and function. Carpenters and artisans spend a month creating the 42 wooden parts in each and every Phantom.
It’s a similarly exacting process to craft a Steinway concert grand. A single piano is hand-built over 12 months, each of its 12 000 parts assembled in countless hours of fine-tuned labour by 450 craftsmen. It’s an approach to quality that has changed little since Henry Engelhard Steinway, a German immigrant, founded the now legendary Steinway & Sons in a New York City loft in 1853, and it guarantees instruments as unique and full of personality as the world-class musicians who will play them.
This commitment to using time-honoured artisanal skills in an age of mass production is the hallmark of many desirable labels. Take the leather goods of Bottega Veneta, for example. Founded in Vicenza, Italy in 1966, the brand nurtures craftsmanship – and those skills spring to life in the striking signature woven leather pattern known as intrecciato; a memorable melding of designer and artisan.
For artisans are the very heart of Bottega Veneta. “The product is the centre of everything,” said CEO Marco Bizzarri, speaking to British newspaper The Telegraph. “And who creates the product? Of course there is the creative vision of [creative director] Tomas Maier, but then there is the collaboration with the artisans. Your real asset is your team of people.”
And the company has invested in its people. In 2006 it opened Montebello Vicentino, an atelier near Venice where skilled craftsmen collaborate with designers on the evolution of the products, and where future craftsmen are trained in the skills needed to produce them.
Great artisans have never been afraid of seeing the passage of time as a tool at their disposal, not least the brandy distillers at Van Ryn’s in the Western Cape, where the production schedule is marked in decades, not mere days.
Crafting great brandy isn’t something to be done in a hurry, says Marlene Bester, Van Ryn’s master distiller. “Especially for the older brandies you have to wait 10 or 15 years or longer before you can begin to blend them together. It’s an exciting challenge to make sure that what we put into barrel is of high enough quality for someone to use years from now.”
The proof is in the brandy balloon too: at the International Spirits Challenge in London, the Best Brandy trophy went to Van Ryn’s 15-Year-Old Fine Cask Reserve, the fourth time the Stellenbosch distillery has won the trophy in the past decade.
“On the other hand we are also taking products out of barrel that were made two generations ago. There’s a great responsibility there too,” adds Brink Liebenberg, Distell’s master distiller.
When it comes to a glass in which to serve a fine brandy, it’s hard to find better than a perfectly shaped Riedel crystal balloon, its provenance also crafted over many generations, with the Riedel family tracing its involvement in the glass and crystal industry back to the late 1600s.
Over the past 300 years the Riedel name has been associated with the finest crystal glassware in the world, but a watershed moment came in 1973 when Claus Josef Riedel recognised that the shape of the glass affected our perception of the taste of its contents. Riedel’s Sommeliers range was born, transforming the role of glassware in the world of gastronomy forever. The next-generation, in Georg J. Riedel, took the notion a step further with the creation of varietal-specific glass collections that ensure connoisseur’s get the maximum sensory enjoyment from their favourite drink.
Trademark quality, honed over centuries, is a characteristic of many premier brands, and for nearly 250 years Breguet has been regarded as one of the finest watchmakers on the planet. Earlier this year the Breguet Classique Chronométrie was awarded the Aiguille d’Or, the top prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie d’Genève, showing that little has changed since Abraham-Louis Breguet first set up shop in Paris to keep time for Europe’s aristocracy.
While the technology has evolved over the past two centuries, the artisans that craft Breguet timepieces in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux honour the heritage of the brand through subtle trademarks. The manufacturing number engraved on each watch has long enabled collectors to confirm a piece’s origin and provenance, while a secret signature etched into the dial – only visible when examined in oblique light – remains a token of authenticity. Perhaps most memorable though are the hollow ‘moon tip’ watch hands that first became a feature in 1783. These slender, elegant hands proved such a success that the term ‘Breguet hands’ was soon commonplace amongst envious watchmakers worldwide.
“The timepieces emerging from the Manufacture Breguet are works of art rendered unique by the artisans’ hand, and endowed with genuine soul,” says President and CEO Marc A. Hayek, whose grandfather Nicolas G. Hayek revitalised the brand at the turn of the last century.
Zino Davidoff was another luxury entrepreneur who learnt a thing or two from family. Born in 1906 to a long line of tobacconists, Davidoff went on to transform the world’s understanding of fine cigars. Widely acclaimed for inventing the desktop humidor to preserve the richness of the tobacco, Davidoff also recognised that great cigars are made in the field. Still today tobacco seeds are individually selected and hand-tended before being transplanted into the soil. Once picked, the leaves are dried, fermented, aged and blended, then rolled by the skilled hands of torcedores. It’s a process that can take up to a decade for the rarest tobaccos, and one that’s little-changed since Davidoff opened his business in Geneva.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that many of the finer things in life require that magical blend of skills, craft and patience.
A healthy dose of all three are needed to produce the award-winning brandies that have seen South African distilleries dominate global awards ceremonies. Some of the finest of those are to be found in the maturation warehouses of the scenic Cape winelands, where thousands of oak casks lie quietly maturing in the soft seaside air.
Casks that may contain the future editions of Klipdrift Gold perhaps, an inspired blend of potstill brandies that recently collected a gold medal at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Spirits Competition. Richelieu International Brandy won gold at the same competition, proving there’s no shortage of accolades for South African brandies on the world stage.
Locally, Oude Meester brought home the honours in the recent Veritas awards with Oude Meester Demant bagging a prestigious double-Gold award, while Oude Meester Souverein 18-Year-Old went home with a Gold.
And while there’s skill and artistry in the distilling of wine into spirit, the real magic happens during maturation and blending. That all begins with ensuring the spirit distilled from carefully vinified Chenin Blanc and Colombard grapes goes into the perfect barrel.
“We train our own coopers, and it’s very much a hands-on process,” says master distiller Brink Liebenberg. “The toasting is all done by hand, it’s not temperature controlled at all. It comes down to the skill of the cooper feeling the heat coming through the wood of the barrel to get the perfect toast.”
While an apprenticeship programme trains coopers in the skills of barrel making, there’s no formal training to become a master distiller. Ensuring future generations are able to blend award-winning brandies comes down to mentorship and time in the distillery.
“We take people from a science background,” says Liebenberg, “but the very important aspect is tasting. We have panels that taste together, so it’s about all about practice, and tasting and learning with people that have some exposure.”
It may seem old-fashioned in this fast-paced world of internet-enabled information forever at our fingertips, and yet time-honoured practices continue to define the world of luxury. Products crafted from age-old knowledge and expertise. Knowledge passed down from father to son, master to student, artisan to apprentice. There’s simply no hurrying the finer things in life – and there’s no better way to savour them than with an award-winning brandy.