A year or so ago I had read a small article somewhere about an astonishing tale of sunken treasure. No, not gold doubloons and silver salvers from a Spanish galleon, but old leather in a shipwreck off Cornwall.

Briefly, the 53 ton Brigantine, Frau Metta Catherina, from Flensburg (then in Denmark) was making its way from St Petersburg to Genoa, via the English Channel, when worsening weather forced it to make for Plymouth Sound where she anchored. Alas, the weather deteriorated further – she dragged her anchor and was lost against rocks. The crew survived but not her cargo of hemp and reindeer skins.

Two skins sold at auction. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Fast forward to 1973 when divers from the local Sub Aqua Club found an encrusted ships bell. They had in fact been seeking a sunken British Navy ship, but instead had found the Catherina. Divers were first perplexed by the cargo – bundles of skins scattered on the seabed. They were then astonished to find that the leather was reindeer and moreover usable – having been tanned with willow bark and birch oil which was known to resist water and insects. Oh, I forgot to mention that the vessel sank in 1786!

Technically the wreck (and any contents) was owned by The Duchy of Cornwall – so in effect Prince Charles. However, he waived his rights on condition that the hides would be raised only periodically and then sold, on a not-for-profit basis, to craftsman upholding traditional methods. I am not entirely sure this ethos was entirely successful as two skins were sold at Sotheby’s in 2016 for $5,200! Also, I believe a certain leading haute couturier made a handbag out of the leather and it sold for some £100,000!

G Cleverley, the illustrious London shoemakers, were one firm that was successful in securing some of the leather. As such they have made some shoes from this unusual skin, along with smaller items like wallets, key fobs and watch straps. It was towards the latter part of 2018 that I first made acquaintance with this holy grail of leather.

I had been invited to a watch event at Cleverley’s shop last November. This was a collaboration between The Rake/Revolution magazines and IWC. The watch was a limited edition Pilot 36 (based on the legendary Mk 11), in bronze with a green dial, and fitted with a strap made by Cleverley from the reindeer leather. The overall watch package was really very nice, but I was not that interested personally as there was no date function – something I prefer these days. Also – and only discovered at the event, all the watches had been pre-sold save for one which could be bought that evening. The lucky buyer was selected via a raffle.

I had actually visited the shop the previous day so had inspected some of the wallets and so on. The leather was magical both in colour – a deep chestnut colour, and texture – supple with hand cross-hatching. But it was the smell that was evocative and fascinating – old hemp and a good malt whiskey from one of the Scottish islands, so, a medicinal, peaty/seaweedy aroma. I determined then to obtain some of this leather, but not just then. As mentioned, the watch was not an option, and I had recently bought a new wallet. The shoes were very expensive, so were ruled out. Also, that run of leather was almost at an end, but I was assured that some more would be ready in 2019.

Enlargement showing cross-hatching done by hand many years ago.

Fast forward to early June 2019 and I was in London – mainly for The Watchmakers Club Covent Garden event. As usual though I had a few other calls to make, including to Cleverley in order to get more material for some shoe articles (see the piece elsewhere on the site). Whilst I was chatting to Adam (workshop manager) and George Glasgow (Chairman), I noticed in the glass cabinet where the reindeer leather items were, a few watch straps. One seemed that it might just fit my much-loved IWC Pilot Chronograph (ref IW371704). The width seemed fine lug-wise, and the length possibly too – but annoyingly I had for some reason left my bar tool at my lodgings so could not test this out. As such I asked Adam if he would put the strap to one side and I would call back the following morning to try out. This all duly occurred and, bingo, the strap fitted! Ideally it could possibly have been a mite longer, but it was sufficient.

Writer’s IWC chronograph sporting reindeer strap. Note single wide keeper.

So, I bought the strap – and a key fob to boot. Prices were some £350 and £75. Also, and If memory serves, a pair of shoes in reindeer will set you back some £4,800 odd – so, all rather dear. However, as one is getting a real piece of history, practical benefits, and a good story to tell, I guess it pans out! To date I am delighted with both my modest buys – the strap in particular as it suits the watch well and of course is an interesting talking point.

At the time of writing Cleverley still have a varied range of items available, so if you are interested in a practical piece of history call in to see them. As the final stock of leather is finite, perhaps sooner rather than later!

Words: Karl Dennis

Photos: Unless otherwise noted, Karl Dennis