Alchemy of leather
Part of a fine heritage
Exploring the skies on Concorde, setting sail aboard the iconic cruise liner, the Queen Elizabeth II (QE2), or pulling away in style from Paris Gare de l’Est train station on the Orient Express. For many this still represents the pinnacle of luxury travel, from a time when no expense was spared in making passengers feel comfortable and special. But even though these examples are from a bygone age, our longing for luxury and comfort remains – no more so than when we’re in our cars. So, how can we experience a similar level of luxury today? Well, the secret lies in the leather.
This article began by mentioning Concorde, the QE2 and the Orient Express for a reason. Yes, they are all prime examples of luxurious first class travel, but they also have something else in common – exquisite upholstery crafted from the finest Bridge of Weir leather. Founded in 1905 and situated on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, Bridge of Weir is now the oldest independent automotive leather manufacturer in the world. A true family business in every sense, the company’s roots can be traced back to 1758 and there are now sixth, seventh and eighth generation members of the family working there, all of whom are leathermakers. This has resulted in a unique leather manufacturing process steeped in tradition and shaped by leather making skills that have been passed down through the generations.
It all began with the Volvo 740
“I used to get brought round the factory on a Saturday morning by my grandfather. I’m seventh generation since the business first began in 1758, so it’s in the blood,” explains Bridge of Weir’s Sales Director, Jamie Davidson, whose great-grandfather, Arthur Muirhead, founded the company in 1905. But how did the relationship between Volvo Cars and Bridge of Weir begin?
“We started with the Volvo 740 back in 1983,” explains Jamie. “The upholstery we produced was a single tone colour, which is what most cars have today, but interestingly we then developed a two-tone, almost cloud-like effect on the leather. So it almost looked used, like a good antique armchair that gets better with age.” It was Bridge of Weir’s work on another Volvo model, however, that really took the two companies relationship to the next level. “The big turning point for me was the Volvo 850. We were sole supplier, which was very unusual. But by that point Volvo had the confidence to give us all the colours for that car. That really cemented our relationship.”
But Jamie believes the relationship between Volvo Cars and Bridge of Weir runs deeper. “I think we’ve got a lot in common. Volvo’s catchphrase is ‘quality, the environment and safety’. I’d like to think we stand up for the same values. There are also many similarities between the Gothenburg locals and the west of Scotland/Glasgow locals with their backgrounds in heavy engineering and shipbuilding – they even share a similar sense of humour.”
Where technology meets tradition
“There are a lot of things that people look for in the interior of their cars nowadays,” says Debra Choong, Head Designer at Bridge of Weir. “They look for details and bespoke design, but they also look for comfort. You spend a lot of time in your car – it’s like a living room – so comfort is a big issue.” But what do Volvo Cars look for in leather? “Volvo want very soft, natural-looking leather,” explains Debra. “But they want it to meet high standards for wearability.”
But, as Jamie explains, developing a leather that meets the designers’ demands is just the start. “Once you have the aesthetics, the feel, the colour and the touch, the leather has to then be tested in our laboratory. This is another challenge because Volvo’s specifications are quite rightly very rigorous.”
Bridge of Weir has a full on-site laboratory, which allows a wide range of testing to be carried out every day. These daily tests include testing for emissions, durability, abrasion resistance and whether the leather causes fogging in the cabin. But they also carry out more extreme annual tests, which involve placing pieces of leather in a climate chamber for around 8 weeks in order to monitor how the finish performs in both extreme high temperatures and extreme low temperatures. It’s reassuring to know that when it comes to testing the materials that will go into your Volvo, nothing is left to chance. "
A focus on sustainability
Volvo Cars and Bridge of Weir have been working together now for over thirty years. And during that time, both companies have seen a lot of changes. Changes not only in design but also in manufacturing and processing techniques. Jamie takes up the story, “We used to chrome tan all of our leather, which is the standard tanning method used in the shoe and garment industry. But we worked together with Volvo to develop a chromium-free leather, which is organically tanned with natural agents like chestnut, mimosa and Tara.” Not only is chromium-free tanning better for allergy sufferers, it’s also better for the environment.
Taking care of the environment is something Bridge of Weir has invested a huge amount of time and resources in, with the result that they now have the lowest carbon footprint of any leather maker in the world. They even have their very own, self-funded thermal energy plant. The thermal energy plant at Bridge of Weir is a patented world first and a key factor in the company’s mission to develop the highest-quality, low-carbon leather. “I’m very proud Bridge of Weir is a company that looks to the future. We need to be sustainable,” says Jamie.
Bridge of Weir’s focus on sustainability also extends to animal welfare. The company is proud of the fact they only source hides from suppliers that respect and observe the Five Freedoms, a set of internationally-recognised animal welfare standards.
Planning for the future, proud of the past
But it’s not just Bridge of Weir’s forward-thinking approach to the environment that Jamie feels will stand the company in good stead for the future. “We’ve got the tradition, the raw materials and we’ve got the best people. We’re very innovative and want to stay one step ahead. But most importantly we want to develop a leather that the customer doesn’t realise they need yet.”
And what of the past? Which of Bridge of Weir’s clients are Jamie and Debra most proud of? Apart from Volvo Cars, of course. “Even though it was a little before my time, I love the work Bridge of Weir did for the furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames,” says Debra. “When I was studying, those were the designs that were iconic to me. So, I’m very proud that we are a part of their story.” And what about Jamie? “My favourite would be the House of Lords leather because you saw that on television almost every day if you wanted to watch politics. We did the red for the Lords and the green for the Commons. I was very proud of that.”
Good enough for the QE2, good enough for Concorde and good enough for your Volvo. Bridge of Weir leather is a benchmark of quality, design and innovation. Here’s to the next thirty years!