Giacomo Cortesi, managing director of Montblanc’s leather division, is making an interesting point to an assembled group about quality control, but it is hard to concentrate when there is a mechanical arm behind him that’s lifting and twisting a briefcase – swinging it up and down, left and right. The 2m orange machine is on the other side of the corridor, but the glass walls mean we can all see the automaton going through its programme of careful violence.
Eventually, Cortesi turns around. One of us – it may or may not have been me – is staring so much it has proved impossible to ignore. “I’m looking forward to showing you that,” he says. “For me, those machines encapsulate the combination of Italian creativity and German quality we have here at the pelleteria.”
This pelleteria was built three years ago by the company to expand its leather-goods production, including the recently launched Sfumato collection, which features hand-painting at the edges of the leather to create a “smoked” effect, andincludes a document case (£1,250, first picture) and wallet (£240, second picture). The Montblanc workshop is in the centre of the leather district just outside Florence, which itself is the centre for leather goods in Italy. Gucci and Prada are neighbours.
“If we were going to be serious about leather, we felt we had to be here,” says Cortesi. “But we also believe we bring something different to the area – a particular respect for quality, in terms of reliability and longevity.” Most high-end leather goods go through mechanised quality control, and Montblanc is exacting about it, investing in its own bespoke machinery to test the durability of the bags – hence the orange mechanical arm.
This supersized arm was imported from the car industry, says Cortesi. The tricky bit was deciding what combination of lifting and swinging would recreate years of use by a Montblanc customer, and therefore ensure the bags could survive such punishment unscathed.
“Our engineers looked at the biggest causes of problems with bag handles. Usually it is the twisting – which a handle is not naturally shaped to withstand – and the sharp pull it gets when you lift it to head height, for example, to put in an overhead locker on a plane,” explains Cortesi.
Other machines test how hardware deals with the beach – heat, moisture and salinity – and how the colour fades over months of sun exposure. Montblanc has also created its own machine that repeatedly buckles and unbuckles a belt, to see how long it takes for the leather to crack.
My favourite machine, however, tests how well a belt buckle withstands repeated dropping. It is a tall plastic case, with shelves built into either side at 45 degrees. The buckle is dropped from the top and bangs against each shelf in turn, all the way down. The process is repeated several times, each with the buckle at a different angle. It is then checked to make sure the internal pins and springs still work.
“We worked on that one for quite a while,” Cortesi says with a smile. “Sometimes the simplest tests are the best.”