Story: Anh Dao
Photos: Ngoc Dao
While most artisans have rough hands that bear the marks of time, the slender and lithe hands of Cao Van Quynh work wonders on tanned leather. His hands have produced many bespoke masterpieces for discerning clients.
Creativity, not copies
Born in 1991, Hai Duong native Cao Quynh nursed a passion for art from a young age. In 2014, he graduated with a degree in Graphic Design and began his career by happenstance. Once he graduated, he studied engraving while working in Master Hoa’s studio at the Vietnam University of Fine Art on Yeu Kieu Street. Engraving is notoriously difficult as it requires exquisite and elaborate details. Master Hoa said: “Others have finished the easy jobs, so you guys must tackle the hard ones.”
It was this difficulty that led Mr. Quynh to pursue leather crafting and gave him the resolve to do an exceptional job.
Leather crafting has a history that can be traced back to a thousand years BCE. Many reputed leather-ware brands have been in business for centuries. Therefore, artists who are content to follow existing patterns are merely copying.
“An artisan must have an ego,” said Mr. Quynh. “In addition to learning from colleagues worldwide, artisans must constantly refine their techniques, from the coloring of the hems to the stitches, to create their own masterpieces.”
From the master of one trade…
Since his fateful beginning in this craft, Mr. Quynh has become increasingly engrossed in blazing new trails. He said: “Master your profession, and you’ll master your destiny. Once you’ve mastered one trade, you have written your own ticket in life.” He pointed at one of his products and explained: “For example, when I began working on this wallet, I had to calculate the number of stitches as well as where they’d start and end. I also had to consider how the stitches would intersect so that the finished product would be durable and aesthetically pleasing.”
This artisan’s passion is such that when he received his first commissions from customers familiar with luxury brands like Hermès, Bottega Veneta, and Louis Vuitton, his first and foremost concern was not his profits but how he could best satisfy these customers, since they had gone this far to request his services and connect with their authentic selves.
“This labor of love is quite arduous,” he confessed. On one occasion, a gentleman custom-ordered a unique clutch. The demands of this customer were such that Mr. Quynh had to consult jewelers and metal sculptors, as well as professional metalsmiths and carpenters. Since the customer had specified that the lock be made of tungsten, which is notorious for its hardness, the artisan had to commission a foreign locksmith for this task. A ruby meeting the client’s specifications for translucence and tint was then embedded in the lock. To complement the ruby, the customer wanted the padding to be made of sua wood, adorned with Ly Dynasty patterns and rimmed with tungsten. It took nearly one year and VND 200 million (about USD 8,431) to deliver this clutch from the time of commission.
However, this was not Mr. Quynh’s most expensive commission. That honor belongs to a briefcase with a hefty price tag of VND 400 million (nearly USD 17,000). However, the value of the briefcase does not lie in its leather quality but in the originality of its design. Since it was custom-made, it commanded the intellect and the skills of an entire team of artisans for two months. The product was made and remade many times before reaching the status of a masterpiece. Ultimately, the customer bought the copyright to the design, making the briefcase the only one of its kind.
… to a national treasure
Today, this artisan has become a household name in leather-crafting, with many high-quality handcrafted products, bespoke masterpieces, and three brands under his belt: “Quyn” (established in 2014), which specializes in high-quality leather products; “Hoa Sa” (established in 2016), which specializes in watch straps; and “3Q Leather” (established in 2019), which specializes in supplying high-quality leather.
It is no surprise that Cao Quynh was nominated by the leaders of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to become a National Artisan. However, for Mr. Quynh, what matters most is the ability to devote his all to leather-crafting and to continue to use unique leather materials in creative new ways.