A COMMUNITY OF QUALITY: Tardini – FINAL DRAFT
Title: A Genius for Alligator
There have always been, and there will always be, professionals across all industries and vocations who approach their work with an audacious intensity in pursuit of perfection. Perhaps General George S. Patton Jr., the infamously manic and profane communicator and genius for war, exhibited the best proof of this, when, during World War II, surveying human carnage strewn across the North African desert in the wake of a seminal battle his army won against Erwin Rommel’s Panzer Corps, infamously said of war, “God help me, I do love it so.”
The Tardini family of Modena, Italy, shares a similarly intense passion for what they ‘love so,’ and do so well. Although their business is as far removed from warfare as ocean floor is to mountain top, their pursuit of excellence in their chosen craft is no less passionate or less creatively fueled than Patton’s methods for winning at warfare. Indeed, had Patton—a famously fastidious dresser and aristocrat—been born in later decades to grow into the same man he was at the zenith of his career in the 1940’s—he’d likely have been a client of Tardini. The Tardini family, you see, creates audaciously masculine and luxurious leather products from the hides of awesome reptilian warriors: alligators, crocodiles and caiman.
If Patton was, as his biographer, the military historian Carlos D’Este termed him, ‘a genius for war’ then Tardini is, without doubt, a genius for alligator. “We take something dull and vulgar and make it passionate, romantic [and] elegant,” says Giuseppe Tardini of his family’s art. Upon seeing Tardini product for the first time, one would be hard-pressed to impeach Mr. Tardini’s claim. Tardini products are majestic displays of human ingenuity and love of craft.
The Tardini family has been working in Modena since 1958, primarily with the hides of two reptiles: The American alligator, more commonly known as the Mississippi alligator (Alligator Mississippiensis) and the crocodile. Tardini also uses the hides of the caiman, a smaller, more sturdily armored aquatic reptile, and distant cousin of its larger lizard relatives, found primarily in South America.
Both alligators and crocodiles are members of the reptilian order Crocodylia. But the families they belong to, Alligatoridae and Crocodylidae differ. Alligators are mostly found in the southern United States and the crocodile in Africa, India, South America, and the southern United States. The crocodile generally spends more time in the water than the alligator, and is a more active beast, generally. Grayish green in color, the crocodile, like its slow moving cousin, the brown-hued alligator, are impressive not only for their size and ferocity, but for their evolutionary resiliency: their lineage dates back 240 million years, outdistancing dinosaurs by an incredible sixty-five million years.
From their hides Tardini produces, among other items, luggage, briefcases of all sizes and constructions, portfolios, gaming boxes for backgammon, poker and chess, rifle cases, gloves, falconry accessories, garment bags, personal grooming cases, shoes and shoe horns, belts, watch cases, jewelry boxes, wallets, card cases, ashtrays, hat boxes, cigar holders, humidors, I-Pad cases, key fobs, picture frames and house slippers. “Breathtakingly beautiful and breathtakingly expensive,” is how one American client who buys Tardini product describes it.
With Tardini, you get what you pay for. What exactly does one pay for? Literally hundreds of millions of years of Mother Nature’s hard work, and more than half a century of Tardini technical and artistic skill. If you’re buying large pieces of Tardini art, such as trolley luggage or a steamer trunk, you’re also paying for animal skins which were as old as fifty or sixty years before they came off the flesh of the animal. This is how long, generally, an alligator must live to grow to a size sufficient whereby its hide can be used by Tardini for a large item’s architecture.
Alligators, crocodiles and caimans are covered with osteoderms—armored scales—which span out symmetrically across the animal’s body from their ventral line. In the case of the Mississippi alligator, the large and hearty rectangular scales on the ventral surfaces become softer and smoothly rounded toward the animal’s sides. It is these more mildly shaped and smoother scales which Tardini prefers to exhibit on their product.
“The Mississippi alligator,” says Giuseppe Tardini, “is, for our purposes, the most versatile [animal] of the twenty species of alligator, since its scales are larger than its African cousins. Its larger scales give a more modern and aggressive appearance that our clients appreciate.”
Modern and aggressive is a wonderfully apt descriptor for Tardini product. After all, the beasts whose skin spawns Tardini product are aggressive, and the Tardini family is equally aggressive in their constant pursuit for creating product from them with uses applicable to our modern, ever-changing times and needs.
Since Luigi Tardini, the patriarch of Tardini, founded the company as a belt maker in 1958, the consumers who would buy such product have had, and continue to have, the means to buy similar product from competing manufacturers. Fully sympathetic to this fact, Tardini is obsessed with making sure the quality of their skins are, literally, the best quality nature will allow, nurtured by design and not just by nature’s wild chance. They assure this by harvesting animals for their skins from a natural spa of sorts, in Louisiana, in the American south, where the only clients are prehistoric reptiles and the aestheticians who tend them are named water, mud, sun, salt and exfoliating grasses. Indeed, so passionate for alligator are Tardini, that, in the 1970’s, unsatisfied with the quality of skins they were buying, they bought a stake in their own Louisiana alligator farm. They are still part owners of it, assuring the environment in which the reptiles breed, and grow, remains as pure and unblemished as the animals harvested from its waters and muddy banks.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries manages the American alligator as a commercial, renewable natural resource, and it is from this protected realm, thousands of wet and muddy acres large in the American south where Tardini skins originate. The Department’s goal is to manage and conserve Louisiana’s alligators as part of the state’s wetland ecosystem. Through rigorous sustained use management, and regular annual harvests lasting just thirty days, the Department allows matured animals to be taken from the wild for their skins and meat, while protecting eggs and immature reptiles, and the land and waters which host them. The commercial trade in alligators is then regulated through the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Because of this oversight, the American alligator is not endangered or threatened.
In the realm of Tardini, time is a major actor, and for Tardini to “get it right,” Tardini must respect time. It takes, at minimum, “eight to ten months before a product is ready for market,” according to Giuseppe Tardini, “but usually even longer than that. For watch straps, two year old animals are used,” says Tardini. “For small, elegant ladies hand bags, four to five year old animals are used. For men’s items, where larger scales are preferred, thirty to fifty year old animals are used!”
To place what Tardini creates into context, think of this: The most majestic, award-winning merino sheep bred in the world are shorn for their precious fibers and their fleece is sold at auction to esteemed mills such as Loro Piana, Zegna and Carlo Barbera, among others. These fuzzy and generally friendly farm animals wander lazily their whole lives in pastoral environments, eating grass, and talking shop with other sheep. Every now and then, they go to the barber and get a crew cut. Then, they return to their pastures, and eat some more grass. These enormous four-legged fiber vendors can be shorn numerous times over the course of their lives for their precious fibers, and they’ll never bite their barber. With an alligator, or crocodile, or caiman, there is no pastoral landscape, and no friendly barber. There is, however, for those who harvest these large lizards, the threat of gruesome decapitation and death in a vice-grip of up to seventy-five razor-sharp, peg-shaped teeth attached to jaws which close on prey with as much as 3,700 pounds of force per square inch.* A lion, tiger or hyena’s bite is powered by a mere 1000 pounds of force per square inch. Tardini has one shot to get it right—every annual harvest—and that’s after waiting years, sometimes decades, for the reptile to reach the right age and size for its intended purpose.
All the personnel at Tardini have a particular skill and technical qualification, usually attained after years of study, apprenticeship and hands-on work. “The skin is like a rough diamond,” says Tardini. “If you cut it wrong, it will lose all its value. [And] for those who sew,” continues Tardini, “they must be able to keep a straight line, and believe me,” Tardini implores, “it is not easy to sew on alligator scales. Every phase requires qualified personnel who must be trained, since processing [these skins] requires great attention, skill and love for this valuable and precious material—too precious and expensive to have a machine cutting, sewing and assembling it.”
The dark gray and green hued hides cut off the animal are, according to Tardini, “often covered with mud, moss and dirt.” They need to be tanned before they can be cut and assembled. Tanning is the extremely complex scientific process whereby Tardini transforms raw hide—smelly, bloody, cold, stiff and thick and saturated with natural oils—into soft, clean, odorless skin, washed of its natural color; the tanned hides are off-white or “blank” when tanning is completed.
Then, these tanned hides, or smaller sections cut from them—“skins”—are dyed, after tanning in Modena, in many hues, all of which are reflective of the environments from which they developed. For women’s items, skins are dyed in vivid tropical hues of toucan, sunset, coral atoll and palm, and for men, hues which remind of darkly wooded and shadowed forests and murky, muddy swamps. The linings inside of bags and boxes and cases are tastefully, if not a little bit cheekily, covered with mossy green lamb or pig suede. “The color of our lining is our signature color, and has been specifically chosen as it brings to mind forests, jungle, hunting and the feral spirit of the alligator,” says Tardini.
The hardware used for fasteners, clasps and buckles is made of palladium plated brass in 0.5 micron or gold plated brass with a thickness of 0.6 to 0.8 microns. “This,” says Tardini, “allows the hardware to obtain a more long lasting life span compared to common “baths’ currently used by most makers in our field.” Sterling silver is widely used for belt buckles and 18kt gold on smaller items where a hand-woven metal mesh closure is employed.
Through their specialized work, the Tardini family of Modena, Italy exhibits a respect for nature, a love of their family’s artistic heritage and most importantly, a passion for one of nature’s greatest, grandest beasts. Doubt it? Take a trip to the swamps of Louisiana and ask an alligator—if you dare. You probably won’t like the answer, but in it will be all the proof you need to affirm that Tardini is a genius for alligator.